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March 12, 2023

Analysis: Strong showing at Phoenix sets Kevin Harvick up well for career finale

It wasn’t the finish Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team wanted on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, but it may have given them the confidence they needed to end Harvick’s career on the highest note possible — with a Cup Series championship.

The 23-year veteran pushed his historic top-10 record even further Sunday, reeling off his 20th consecutive top-10 finish at the Arizona track with 36 laps led and a fifth-place showing. In fact, he was just a handful of laps away from capturing his 10th win and becoming the first driver to reach double-digit trips to Victory Lane at the track before Harrison Burton’s spin ushered out the caution and re-racked the field.

RELATED: Watch the final sequence at Phoenix | Full Cup Series race recap

Eventually, the toughest decision of the race hampered Harvick’s chances of earning his first win of the season: four tires in favor of two right-side tires.

But to Harvick, the eventual outcome is hindsight.

“It’s what I would have done,” Harvick said of crew chief Rodney Childers’ four-tire call. “I’d always rather be on offense.

“I just didn’t get a couple cars when that first caution came out. Kind of lost our chance. Still thought I had a chance there at the end. Those cars were quite a bit slower. They get all jammed up. That’s the way it goes. Just smoked ’em up until the caution. They did a great job with our Hunt Brothers Pizza Ford Mustang. Didn’t need the caution at the end.”

Still, it’s clear the No. 4 team is on a mission to send the 2014 premier series champion out with another title trophy — it’s not just a farewell tour.

Through four races this season, the team has an average finish of 7.75 compared to 13.75 at this point in 2022. And despite the victory slipping through their fingers at Phoenix, most of their season goals are still in front of them.

If history holds true, the agony of losing a race by such a slim margin will fuel “The Closer” more than anything.

Though the debut of the revamped short-track package stymied some in the field, Harvick proved his prowess at Phoenix rises above all and continued his decade-long dominance at the 1-mile desert circuit. His records — most wins (nine), most top fives (20), most top 10s (30) and most laps led (1,699) — will likely be untouched for a long time.

ICYMI: Harvick announces his retirement after 2023 | Heading to the FOX Sports booth

Sunday’s success proved that if he can capture his sixth Championship 4 appearance when the series returns in November, he could be in for a storybook ending to a Hall of Fame career. One of NASCAR’s best drivers at his best track may be the perfect recipe for success.

There is still a long way to go this season, but what Sunday revealed is that one thing is clear: To win at Phoenix, you will likely need to beat a hungry Harvick at his best — and though it’s possible, it’s easier said than done.

And in the final race of his two-decade-long career, he will surely be hungrier than ever to reach Victory Lane just one more time.