Kevin Harvick and the No. 29 Shell-Pennzoil team’s record-setting streak of 81 races without a DNF ended in Fontana, California last Sunday. It was a tough pill to swallow for Harvick and his Richard Childress Racing crew, who had finished every Sprint Cup event since Dover in September of 2006. After an engine failure got the better of them at the Monster Mile, their streak of running at the finish lasted through the rest of 2006, the entire 2007 and 2008 seasons, and into the second race of the 2009 Cup schedule. That’s an impressive feat that Harvick and his crew should be immensely proud of.
Perhaps it’s a milestone that doesn’t measure up to multiple championships or Daytona 500 wins to most fans; but even if you don’t give it quite as much credit, this feat does say a lot about the team and its driver. It is a testament to their fierce competitiveness, pride, and most certainly the skill of the man behind the wheel.
The official explanation for Harvick’s wreck was that of a punctured oil filter that spewed oil onto his tires, rendering the No. 29 Chevrolet uncontrollable and sending it hard into the outside wall. The resulting damage to the racecar wound up too extensive to repair with only 43 laps remaining in the Auto Club 500 – although the team did report that their engine restarted in the garage area. However, there is little doubt that the team simply could not repair the car in time. Based on past performances that have seen them return Harvick to the track during this record-setting streak of no DNFs, maximum effort would have been expended by the crew if they thought they had a chance to keep going.
Had they rebuilt the No. 29 car in time, it would not have been the first incident where Harvick’s crew, headed by crew chief Todd Berrier, has rolled up their sleeves when others may have asked, “What’s the use?” Just to name a few such instances, in 2007 the team went behind the wall to repair the No. 29 and return it to the track 55 laps down at Talladega, after the typical Big One caused extensive damage to their RCR Chevrolet. They did the same at Watkins Glen, winding up six laps behind the leaders, and finished 13 laps behind at the second Daytona race of the season. During 2008, the crew once again demonstrated their “never say die” attitude as they wound up 74 laps down in the spring Dover race, 12 laps off the pace at Indy and another 11 laps behind at the second visit of the year to Talladega before the car could be adequately repaired to continue in those events.
Incredibly, the streak and new record surpassed the previous modern-era record of consecutive finishes set by… well, Harvick himself. Between October of 2002 and August of 2004, the RCR driver and crew finished 58 straight races before finally recording a DNF. Berrier, who took command of the No. 29 team midway through the 2003 race season, clearly has been instrumental in building a team that truly will give 110%.
No doubt, these two record-setting performances were not possible without a certain amount of racing luck. Sometimes motors just explode, or accidents not even of the driver’s making can leave a racecar bent and crumpled on the track, spewing liquids and waiting for a rollback truck to load it up and carry its carcass back to the team hauler. However, all luck aside, performances such as that by Harvick and the Berrier-led crew members take an immense amount of skill and hard work, and their efforts should not go underappreciated. They never gave up in the face of adversity, admirably choosing to repair their vehicle when others would have loaded it up in the truck and went home.
A curious sidebar to this record-setting mark was that while the 81-race streak is recognized by NASCAR as the modern-day record (1972-present) it is not the all-time NASCAR record for most races completed without a DNF. That honor belongs to one Herman “The Turtle” Beam, who set the all-time mark by finishing 84 consecutive races he entered in the Grand National (now Sprint Cup) Series between April 1961 and March of 1963.
One might ask how any driver could find so much reliability in an almost completely stock Ford Galaxy on the track, during an era when the attrition rate of stock cars at any given race was in the neighborhood of 40%. But Beam, a University of North Carolina chemical engineering graduate, knew how to get the job done. He simply would not abuse the car or push it to the limit under any circumstance. In fact, he would not even really race it, but cruise at a moderate rate of speed along the apron of racetracks throughout the South. Beam, a Johnson City, Tenn. native, was content to just take a Sunday drive and survive within the 20-car fields of those days. It’s a strategy that in 194 races, earned the man a neat $42,000 – and allowed him to amazingly compile 57 top-10 finishes from 1957 to 1963.
“He knew the distance to each racetrack, how many gallons of gas it took to get there, what you had to do to qualify for the race, how much money the race paid for each position, and where he thought he could finish,” said fellow racer Gene Glover recently. “He built his own car and towed his own car, and didn’t have much help and didn’t really have a lot of overhead. He was really a genius at stretching a dollar and stretching his equipment longer than anybody.”
“They called him Herman ‘The Turtle’ because he had good equipment but he just didn’t want to drive fast, so he just got down on the apron and stayed out of the way. A lot of times, he’d end up with good finishes.”
In fact, the Turtle, having drawn the pole position after a rainout of qualifying at Richmond, is said to have immediately dropped to the bottom of the track and let the field go by. Said fellow native Tennessee racer Paul Lewis, “He was happy to run around at the bottom by himself.”
A different time and NASCAR, for sure!
Maybe we just need to consider Kevin Harvick the all-time record holder for consecutive races without a DNF instead – or at least put an asterisk next to the name Herman “The Turtle” Beam.
And that’s my view from turn 5.