Did You Notice? Kevin Harvick could put an exclamation point on one of the better seasons of NASCAR’s modern era? After a second-place result Sunday at Phoenix he now has 19 top-three finishes in 35 starts. That’s a number not soon to be repeated in an era where 20 to 25 cars are capable of winning every week.
While Harvick should have cashed in more on Victory Lane – only three of those podium finishes are wins – it’s still an impressive achievement. One more top-three brings him to 20 and means that 56% of the time (better than once every two races) Harvick was guaranteed to run third or better in 2015.
Should he win the title Harvick will set a record for top-three finishes by a champion this century. Here’s a look at how big the difference is compared to his peers.
Champion (Top-Three Finishes)
2000*: Bobby Labonte (12)
2001: Jeff Gordon (15)
2002: Tony Stewart (10)
2003: Matt Kenseth (7)
2004: Kurt Busch (3)
2005: Tony Stewart (12)
2006: Jimmie Johnson (12)
2007: Jimmie Johnson (17)
2008: Jimmie Johnson (13) – runner-up Carl Edwards had 17
2009: Jimmie Johnson (12)
2010: Jimmie Johnson (14)
2011: Tony Stewart (9)
2012: Brad Keselowski (9)
2013: Jimmie Johnson (10)
2014: Kevin Harvick (12)
2015: Kevin Harvick? (19? 20?)
* – Schedule was 34 races, not the current 36
As you can see, even during Johnson’s five-year championship streak he couldn’t come close to matching what Harvick has accomplished in 2015. Harvick would be leading the regular season standings comfortably without a Chase (post-Logano incidents) and has 2,248 on the year. That’s almost 900 higher than second place in that category (Joey Logano); Keselowski is the only other driver over 1,000 laps led.
Harvick’s 22 top-five finishes are a record in the Chase era and the most since Dale Jarrett in 1999 (24). His average start of 8.2 is second to only Logano and he’s won a series-high $8.4 million entering Homestead. It’s hard to find a weakness for Harvick, honestly outside of failing to close the deal on Victory Lane; just think of how this year would be viewed if half of those second- and third-place finishes will turn into wins.
Of course, some people will never accept Harvick winning the title this year after those fateful final laps at Talladega. That’s fair. But the fact the incident has overshadowed what should be a season to remember for the No. 4 team is a real shame. What Harvick has a chance to do, going back-to-back in an era where only Johnson gets to have such domination, is pretty incredible.
Did You Notice? Harvick’s not the only one in position to set some statistical records surrounding the championship.
Martin Truex Jr.: He’d be the first champion from a single-car team since Dale Earnhardt won back in 1994. How ironic considering Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt’s former employer gives the No. 78 team chassis and engine help, right?
Truex, even if he finishes fourth will also be the highest-placing single-car team ever in NASCAR’s Chase era. The last time a single-car team finished fourth or better in points was also Earnhardt, fourth in 1996 before RCR felt a second team was necessary to stay competitive. A victory by Truex considering the uphill battle Furniture Row Racing faces would be incredible; marketed right, it could potentially get new owners at least sniffing around the sport after several seasons where virtually no one has jumped on board.
Gordon: If he wins the title running second or worse Gordon would become the first one-win champion since Kenseth back in 2003 (the same could also be said for Truex). That would be a nice tie-in considering it was that Kenseth triumph, the one based on consistency caused the Chase format, that has arguably robbed Gordon of at least two additional titles over the past decade.
Gordon would also go 14 years between championships (his last occurred in 2001). It would be a new NASCAR record eclipsing his former teammate, Terry Labonte, who won his two titles in 1984 and ’96, respectively. Gordon would also be the first driver to pull a John Elway in the sport’s 67-year history; no Cup driver has ever won the big prize and then immediately retired.
Kyle Busch: Busch’s big storyline revolves around those pesky Daytona injuries. The subsequent recovery cost him 11 races, a sore spot sure to pop up again if the No. 18 does the unthinkable and wins. Not since Richard Petty in 1971 – the year before the schedule was cut from 48 to 31 races – has NASCAR had a Cup champion who’s missed even one event during the season.
Would fans accept Busch as champ? Those four victories scored over the summer should make it easier. But a titlist who’s missed almost a third of the season will set an intriguing precedent, one that could hurt the sport long-term if drivers who clinched Chase spots choose to sit out certain races in the name of safety. After all, why risk injury when you know NASCAR’s going to grant an exemption?
Did You Notice? Quick hits before taking off…
- Sunday also marks the finale for both full-time efforts run by Michael Waltrip Racing. The two-car team is poised to end the year with just two top-five finishes, easily their worst effort since 2008. The regression from team on the rise to team on the auction block has been stunning when you consider pre-Spingate Clint Bowyer was once a trendy title pick.
- What if Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a touch ahead of Logano at Talladega? Would Earnhardt be competing for a championship at Homestead? He certainly looked strong the past three weeks after being eliimintated, winning Phoenix and flexing the muscle he showed earlier this year. Amazing how much one call can make a difference.
- Yes, Matt Crafton didn’t succeed in his quest to sneak underneath and steal one from Erik Jones at Phoenix. But that pass, my friends success or fail is how the championship in any racing series should be fought for… and won.