Takeaways from Martinsville: Is Stewart-Haas positioned to get all 4 cars in the playoffs?

Welcome to the 2018 season and welcome back to our post-race takeaways column. Per usual, we’ll have some random thoughts to espouse after Cup Series races and this column will be the landing spot for them. 

• There is no doubt who the best team in NASCAR is through the first six races of the season.

With Clint Bowyer’s win Monday at Martinsville, Stewart-Haas Racing has four wins in 2018. Yeah, three of them are from Kevin Harvick, but Bowyer’s win solidifies the organization as the early team to beat.

Hell, it wasn’t easy to make the case that SHR wasn’t the team to beat before Bowyer’s win. While Harvick had been in another stratosphere compared to the rest of the Cup Series for three-straight weeks, his teammates weren’t too far behind. All four of the team’s cars finished in the top 10 for the first time at Phoenix two weeks ago and Harvick, Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola are all in the top 11 in the points standings.

[Bowyer snaps 190-race winless streak; full results from Martinsville]

If that keeps up, the entire Stewart-Haas organization will make the 16-driver playoff field.

An entire four-car team making the playoffs isn’t too much of a rarity. Joe Gibbs Racing’s four cars made the playoffs in 2016 and finished third, fourth, fifth and sixth. That year, SHR had three of its four cars in the playoffs thanks to Tony Stewart’s last-gasp win at Sonoma.

Danica Patrick was the lone driver on the outside of the playoffs that season and her spot in the No. 10 car has been filled superbly by Almirola. He was less than a lap away from a Daytona 500 win and has finished 14th or better in every race so far. While he hasn’t had the speed Harvick and Bowyer have now shown, that consistency will easily get him into the playoffs if it continues.

Busch has been pretty good too. While he has two finishes outside the top 20, he’s ahead of Almirola in the standings and even won a stage thanks to some strategy at Phoenix. He could sneak a win somewhere over the summer and even if he doesn’t, he should be in the mix for a playoff berth too. This could be the year for SHR to occupy a quarter of the playoff field.

• Denny Hamlin wasn’t a big fan of what Harvick did to him in the final stage of the race.

Hamlin was bumping Harvick through the corner when Harvick appeared to brake-check him on corner exit. Since Hamlin was so close to Harvick at the time, he slammed into the back of the No. 4 car and damaged the nose of his car.

The damage was so significant that Hamlin had to come to pit road a second time during the final caution of the race so his team could fix the damage.

Hamlin ended up 12th while Harvick was fifth and Hamlin said he was simply bumping Harvick back after Harvick had bumped him before completing a pass.

“I was just bumping him back and he just brake-checked me,” Hamlin said. “I guess I should have brake-checked him in the first place but it was just light bumps and he just slammed on the brakes. Classy.”

Harvick said he wasn’t trying to intentionally brake check Hamlin.

“No, he hit me a couple times and I was just trying to make sure I had my car under control,” Harvick said.

• Darrell Wallace’s rough post-Daytona 2018 continued Sunday with a 34th-place finish. He made contact with JJ Yeley early in the race and had to come to pit road for a flat tire. The contact also caused a broken sway bar, which forced Wallace to drive to the garage so the team could repair the problem so Wallace could continue the race.

According to NASCAR’s damaged car rules, a team can’t take a car to the garage and fix a problem that was caused by contact or an accident. Here’s what the rulebook says:

“A vehicle that sustains damage form an accident or contact of any kind and must go behind the pit wall or to the garage area, whether under its own power or not, will not be permitted to return to the race. Whether the vehicle entered he garage for damage repairs (or for other permissible reasons) will be determined in the sole discretion of the Series Managing Director.”

Another section in the damaged vehicle policy portion of the rulebook has the following entry:

“Mechanical failures can be rectified so long as they are not a result of an accident or contact of any kind. If a mechanical failure results in body damage which does not involve an accident or contact of any kind, the body damage may be repaired on pit road or in the garage.”

So why could Wallace take his car behind the wall and come back into the race? That whole “sole discretion” part of the first entry. The team said it got approval from NASCAR to fix the problem — even though it was a blatant no-go by the letter of the law — and re-enter the race.

• Trevor Bayne may be the driver looking most forward to the Easter off weekend in the Cup Series. Bayne finished 33rd on Sunday, the second-straight week his race has been ruined with a crash. He’s 29th in the points standings through six races.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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