Did You Notice? … Kevin Harvick is on pace for a historic year? Harvick, who turned 44 years old in December, is rewriting the NASCAR history books for a driver his age.
Consider how rare it is to begin with for an athlete to peak at this point in their career. Only one golfer older than Harvick (Jack Nicklaus at age 46) has won the Masters. 99% of all baseball players are retired at age 44, along with the NBA and NHL. This fall, just one potentially active NFL player is older than Harvick (47-year-old placekicker Adam Vinatieri of the Indianapolis Colts).
But Harvick isn’t just staying active; he’s acing the competition. His six wins in 22 starts lead the series and set up a potential second NASCAR championship. Just how rare is it for a driver to be this competitive, this late?
I went through the list of All-Time Cup Series winners and examined their careers at this age. Here’s a look at their win totals, not just at age 44 but for the rest of their Cup career after that point.
Harvick: 6 wins, 15 top fives, 19 top 10s, leading the points at age 44.
Richard Petty (200 career wins)
6 wins at age 44 or older.
Best season: 1983. 3 wins, 9 top fives, 21 top 10s at age 45.
David Pearson (105)
2 wins at age 44 or older.
Best season: 1979. 1 win, 4 top fives, 5 top 10s in nine starts at age 45.
Jeff Gordon (93)
1 win at age 44 or older.
Best season: 2015. 1 win, 5 top fives, 21 top 10s, 4 poles, Championship 4 appearance at age 44 (Retired from full-time racing after the season).
Darrell Waltrip (84)
5 wins at age 44 or older.
Best season: 1992. 3 wins, 10 top fives, 13 top 10s at age 45.
Bobby Allison (84)
19 wins at age 44 or older.
Best season: 1983. 6 wins, 18 top fives, 25 top 10s, series champion at age 45 (Oldest Cup driver to win a title. Allison also had eight wins in his age-44 season).
Jimmie Johnson (83)
No wins at age 44 or older. Turned 44 in September 2019 (Retiring after 2020 season).
Cale Yarborough (83)
8 wins at age 44 or older.
Best season: 1984. 3 wins, 10 top fives, 10 top 10s, 4 poles in 16 starts at age 45.
Dale Earnhardt (76)
12 wins at age 44 or older.
Best season: 1995. 5 wins (four after turning 44), 19 top fives, 23 top 10s, 2nd in points at age 44.
Rusty Wallace (55)
4 wins at age 44 or older.
Best season: 2000. 4 wins (two after turning 44), 12 top fives, 20 top 10s, nine poles at age 44.
Lee Petty (54)
22 wins at age 44 or older.
Best season: 1959. 11 wins, 27 top fives, 35 top 10s, first ever Daytona 500 winner, series champion at age 45.
Then comes Harvick, with 54 career victories. Only Petty, who raced before the modern-era schedule of less than 40-something races, and Allison hold a candle to what he’s done this season.
There’s a couple of more notable drivers down the list who ran well at this age or older. But it’s a short list.
Mark Martin (2009): 5 wins, 14 top fives, 21 top 10s, 2nd in points at age 50.
Dale Jarrett (2000): 4 wins, 12 top fives, 19 top 10s, 5th in points at age 44.
Harry Gant: 15 of 18 Cup wins came at age 44 or later. 2nd in points at age 44 (1984 season, 3 wins) and 5 wins in the 1991 season at age 51 … including four straight, a streak that earned him the nickname “Mr. September.”
One could argue that, with 14 races left in 2020, Harvick has already surpassed the best seasons of Martin, Jarrett or Gant at this age. Two more wins and he’ll tie the modern-era record of Allison’s 1982 total. That’s doable, as is a 2020 championship, which would place him only behind Allison and Lee Petty on the all-time list.
What’s scary for the competition is Harvick shows no signs of slowing down and is under contract for three more years at Stewart-Haas Racing. He’s in position to rack up wins at a time in his life that drivers like Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty and Rusty Wallace were hanging on for top-10 finishes.
Sure, equipment matters a lot in the Cup Series these days. But you still have to execute with the car you have; just ask soon-to-be-unemployed Erik Jones. Defying Father Time is not what we talk about often with Harvick, yet consider how Johnson is retiring at the same age, winless and struggling to make the playoffs. 48-year-old Matt Kenseth has looked ancient driving the No. 42 of Chip Ganassi Racing.
Makes you wonder what would have happened if Harvick made the jump away from Richard Childress Racing sooner.
Did You Notice? … The sport’s two best road course drivers right now are Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott? They’ve combined to win five of the last six Cup events held on left- and right-turn tracks: Sonoma Raceway, Watkins Glen Raceway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. It would be six-for-six if not for Johnson spinning out Truex while leading on the last lap of the inaugural ROVAL race in Fall 2018.
We haven’t seen two drivers dominate the competition on road courses at this level since Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace in the 1980s. From 1987-90, that duo won all but one of the events held at Sonoma, Watkins Glen and now-defunct Riverside International Raceway. Wallace won five, Rudd took three and their back-and-forth battles defined that era as NASCAR began to diversify their right-turn tracks.
Can these drivers return to the front this weekend? It’s a critical race for both. Each driver has won only one points-paying race this year (although Elliott took the All-Star Race) and are taking a back seat in the title conversation. Right now, it looks like Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski have a leg up on those Championship 4 spots at Phoenix Raceway. Ryan Blaney has been fast enough for the fourth spot, but he’s suffered through a stretch of tough luck, leaving the door open for someone like Truex or Elliott.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Austin Cindric says he doesn’t have any plans for 2021 or a contract for Team Penske past this year. Uh-huh. Dad Tim is the team president. Not to say Cindric hasn’t earned another shot (four NASCAR Xfinity Series wins this season, current point leader). But you really think he’ll race anywhere else in the sport? It’s like the Cole Custer combination at SHR: one of those four seats is taken for the foreseeable future. If I’m Matt DiBenedetto, I’m a little nervous with the COVID-19 pandemic making a Penske expansion to four Cup cars near impossible for 2021.
- What a disappointing year for Roush Fenway Racing. Chris Buescher has led just eight laps all year and hasn’t earned a top-five finish since the Daytona 500. In that same race, Ryan Newman narrowly averted tragedy, missed three races afterward with a brain injury and hasn’t earned a top-10 finish since. The fact Newman is just 33 points behind Buescher despite those problems is a sign of how badly the season has gone (neither are inside the top 20). Will RFR look to shake things up in the coming months?