Kevin Harvick may just now be nearing his peak
April 16, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
He may be 38 years old and every bit the cagey veteran, but in some ways Kevin Harvick may just be getting warmed up. With two victories in his first eight races, he's off to one of the best starts of his career. His cars are fast every week, even if they've been sometimes hampered by mechanical issues that have the driver a deceptive 22nd in points. His crew chief has been called the next Chad Knaus. He's perhaps never been in a better position to not just contend for the Sprint Cup Series championship, but to actually win it.
And after Saturday night, that season-long title is the lone remaining major trophy that Harvick has yet to collect. His effort at Darlington Raceway -- a dominant 238 laps led, and the track's first winner from the pole since Dale Jarrett in 1997 -- was everything we've come to expect from a driver and a team that have been the ones to watch ever since preseason testing. Sure, parity has abounded early in this 2014 campaign. But for a broken wheel hub while leading at Las Vegas, Harvick might have three victories. But for a crash while running fourth late at Bristol, he might have four.
Regardless, this No. 4 team continues to look like the most formidable force in the garage area right now when all the parts and pieces hold up. No question, Harvick enjoyed some tremendous seasons at Richard Childress Racing, where he finished third in final points in three of the past four seasons. But this is different. Consider that Harvick has already led 515 laps, more than in any of his full campaigns since 2006, and just 10 fewer than all the laps he's led in the past two seasons combined. At RCR Harvick became known as "the Closer," but it was out of necessity -- his cars didn't run at the front consistently enough, often forcing him to win by making big pushes toward the end.
No more. At Stewart-Haas Racing, Harvick is clearly capable of going out and dominating races with a ruthlessness once reserved for the likes of Jimmie Johnson. That was clearly the case at Darlington, where the California native added his name to an exclusive list of drivers who have claimed the four biggest events of their era -- the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500. In the two decades since Indianapolis Motor Speedway was added to the schedule, only four drivers have swept that quartet: Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and now Harvick.
The playing field here isn't completely level, or course, given that the likes of Richard Petty or David Pearson never had the opportunity to win at Indy in a stock car, and that the Southern 500 inexcusably disappeared from the schedule for four years after Darlington scaled back from two annual race weekends to one. But it's still exclusive company, to say the least.
Bill Elliott doesn't have all four -- he lacks the 600. Neither does Bobby Labonte, who's missing the Daytona 500. Or Dale Jarrett, who's missing the Southern 500, because all three of his Darlington victories were in the track's former 400-miler. Matt Kenseth lacks the Brickyard. Many other racing luminaries of the modern era aren't even close.
So indeed, for Harvick to own the full collection is quite a statement. "HoF clincher IMO," 2012 champion Brad Keselowski wrote in Twitter shorthand, stating his belief that Harvick is now a lock for eventual inclusion in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. While Harvick may not quite be there yet -- consider that Mark Martin, with 15 more career victories and also lacking a title, didn't even make the cut for consideration in his first year of eligibility -- he's certainly put himself in position, especially considering he might just be peaking in his 14th full-time season at the sport's top level.
"This is what I used to do for a hobby," Harvick said after his Darlington victory. "… You used to do this as your hobby, and pay to do it. We're fortunate to be able to do this for a living, but to be able to have celebrated a lot of the race wins, whether it be Indy or Daytona or Charlotte or the All‑Star Race or the Southern 500 now is something that some people don't get to experience at all in their careers, but to celebrate them all is something that's pretty phenomenal. I just feel lucky. I'm glad to be here. I love my job, and looking forward to racing every week."
In some ways it's amazing he ever got there at all. Harvick always exuded driving talent, and was slated to take the step up to the Cup Series with RCR in 2002. But everything changed when NSCAR President Mike Helton stood before the cameras and told the world we'd lost Dale Earnhardt. Suddenly the 25-year-old wasn't just being rushed into the sport's premier series, he was being thrust into the position of having to carry one of the sport's more storied organizations on his shoulders. Looking back, you wonder how it all didn't overwhelm him. Certainly, there had to be times when even he feared it might.
Those who didn't experience it firsthand will never be able to understand what a raw, turbulent, and emotional time that was. And in the middle of it all was Harvick, sitting next to Childress under a tent on a freezing cold day in Rockingham, N.C., where RCR announced it would carry on with a different number on the car and a different driver in the seat. "This is undoubtedly the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life," Harvick said then. Grief, instability, pressure and expectation all hung over that Goodwrench car like the pall that hung over the sport, and it was now Harvick's job to perform despite it all.
To say he succeeded would be a vast understatement. Harvick not only helped rebuild RCR into a team that once again could contend for championships, he built his own identity as a competitor in the process, and he did it all under some of the more adverse circumstances imaginable. That time will always be part of Harvick's legacy, as indelible and as impressive as his victories at Daytona and Indianapolis, as much a part of him as his sarcastic smirk. But his move to Stewart-Haas brings with it the rise of a Harvick 2.0, an updated edition that comes with a new team and a new number and a new narrative, this time one the driver is able to create for himself.
It hasn’t been without a few bugs -- all those mechanical issues remain concerning, even though the No. 4 car looks untouchable when everything holds together. But here is Kevin Harvick, already with multiple victories and a virtually secure Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup berth in his first season with a new team. Here is Kevin Harvick, pushing 40 yet looking as formidable as ever. Here is Kevin Harvick, leading laps by the bushel, not just a closer but a starter and a finisher, and perhaps with his best shot yet of being champion.