NASCAR Cup Series
Why Kevin Harvick Keeps Winning Deep into His 40s
Aug 15, 2022
It’s so very NASCAR that a driver could go from 'washed-up' to 'bonafide championship favorite' over a span of 15 days.
That’s exactly the narrative surrounding Kevin Harvick, who has now won back-to-back races at Michigan International Speedway and Richmond Raceway but only after going through a 65-race winless streak dating back to September 2020.
"It's kind of like when they put those small boxes in the newspaper where they have to correct their story," Harvick said with a smirk during his winner's press conference. "They're so small you can't hardly read them.
"I feel like a lot of you should put those at the bottom of your story. I get great gratification out of that."
The assertion from Harvick is that a lot of people in the media, and observers of the sport in general, had started to write him off at 46 years old.
But over the course of the past 15 days, Harvick went from outside of the provisional playoff grid to a two-race winning streak that has netted him 10 playoff points with the potential of three more based on his regular season points finish.
Right now, Harvick would start the playoffs as the sixth seed, which is again a remarkable turn of events for a team that wasn’t even in the mix two weeks ago.
This was stated last week, but it’s worth the refresher to remember that Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers has made the Final Four in five of the eight seasons utilizing the current elimination playoff format.
Yes, they won the inaugural championship under this process in 2014 but it’s such an inherently random format that it’s more reasonable to quantify success based on merely getting to the final race with a chance to win the championship.
It’s like the New England Patriots reaching the Super Bowl nine times over a span of 18 years from 2001 to 2018. Harvick, Childers and the No. 4 team are the Patriots, and true to the analogy, they reach the AFC Championship more often than not too -- making the Round of 8 in every season they didn’t make it to the Championship 4.
Not that they ever even think about it.
"Look, we're boring," Harvick said. "We don't ever look ahead."
Harvick says Childers and his engineers occasionally work ahead, represented by him showing up to the simulator and not turning laps at the coming weekend's track, but one a week or two out instead.
"Then I'm like, 'Oh, okay, we're working on a project here.' I don't ever say anything, but I can tell. You know, we went to Texas and ran last this year. I think that all those things are out the window, and Darlington was good, Kansas was good, but We'll go back and run better at Texas, but those are definitely good tracks for us."
That's the extent Harvick will look ahead, but we can do it for him.
If you allow Harvick into the tournament, and he’s in now, the No. 4 car will be in the mix come Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville. And go ahead and throw out the results from earlier this season out of the window, because everyone has a notebook now, and it comes down to personnel and execution.
Of course, that’s not to say they are somehow the favorites.
Ross Chastain and the No. 1 team might have some hurdles to overcome to get to Phoenix but they’re the second seed currently. One of those hurdles might be fifth seeded Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team, who also have pit road challenges to overcome.
Harvick of all people know what kind of impediment extracurricular rivalries could be in getting to the final race after his feud with Chase Elliott last year.
Elliott will be the top seeded driver entering the playoffs and has the fast track to Phoenix but Harvick has seen how that type of season can unravel too. So yes, it’s all a crapshoot at the end of the day, but Harvick is as good a pick as any to get to that race.
After all, he is literally the most experienced driver in the field with 778 starts, now two more than the still sidelined Kurt Busch.
But the fact this is even a narrative entering the playoffs after what the narratives were two weeks ago is quite remarkable.
Barring some significant changes to the current racing platform on short tracks, Sunday was a reflection of what Richmond Raceway is for better or worse, and it’s not bad racing if you know what you’re looking for.
What it hasn’t been over the past decade is NASCAR’s quintessential action track, which is something the facility marketed itself as before the arrival of the Gen-6 and before it stopped using sealer to fill the cracks of its aged surface.
The track is now something of a thinking person’s race, a Formula 1-esque strategy affair, and a racing purist’s dream.
The Truck Series race was derided as one of the most uneventful of the year, but winner Chandler Smith said it was his ideal vision of a race. The caveat here, of course, is that he was the winner.
Dale Jr. essentially said the same thing about Sunday’s race, too.
Earnhardt wasn’t alone as several Cup Series drivers all got out of their cars and said the tire management, potential for multiple strategies and ability to use the entire race track on a warm sunny day reminded them of everything they love about driving race cars.
Enter Christopher Bell, dirt racer turned stock car contender:
"So, this is my favorite, absolute favorite kind of NASCAR racing," Bell said. "You have different strategies; long green flag runs and guys coming and going. This is my favorite style."
Granted, they won this race too, but Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick loved both races at Richmond this year too.
"I've always loved tracks like this," Childers said. "We don't have a lot left to be able to do that kind of thing. But to be able to split a stage into thirds is not something that the average fan would sit in the stands and realize that is going to happen.
"If they just look at the laps and how far each person can go on fuel, you're like, 'well, why would they do that.' It's always interesting to see that play out, just like in the spring race, we pitted early and then the 11 realized what we were doing and pitted the next lap, and then we sit there and finish first and second.
April was a really interesting race, even if it wasn't a traditional barn burner, but it probably does require a lot more hand-holding by the TV partners. It was something MRN actually did a great job of setting up in April with Todd Gordon immediately predicting how the race was going to play out just after halfway.
But again, there is an expectation of Richmond and that old 'action track' disclaimer. Between a surface that forces drivers to back up the corner more than ever before, and do math to calculate fuel and tire strategies, it’s just not entirely what fans seem to want.
So, Denny Hamlin, is it time for a repave?
"I'm not sure," Hamlin said. "If we repave, we're going to be stuck to the bottom, and we'll never pass, and it will be really bad.
"It's not a race track problem. It's an aerodynamic problem. These cars just don't turn behind other cars. They're way more aero sensitive on short tracks than the previous car on short tracks. Now we add in shifting. But listen, we've had these races here now for a long time. Long green flag runs.
"It's just a different kind of race track."
NASCAR has tested various different aerodynamic and tire configurations at Martinsville after a lackluster race there in March, under frigid conditions, and realized the control tire used in the spring finally laid down rubber during the June test.
It was very hot.
Of course, the fall race will take place in November where it’s likely to be cold again.
The fix to bring the action track back is probably going to be changes to the underbody, aerodynamic configurations and maybe even horsepower increases to the overall short track and road course package for next season but that’s an entire process in and of itself.
For now, this is what Richmond is, and there was still a lot to appreciate on Sunday with drivers using the entire race track and being able to complete passes on long green flag runs with a high degree of tire degradation.
As everyone said, it was a racing purist’s dream.