NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: Will the Spotlight Ever Shine Again on Kevin Harvick?

As the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Michigan International Speedway this weekend, the driver who should be at the top of everyone’s mind is Kevin Harvick — except he isn’t.

Harvick, after all, is the best active driver at the Brooklyn, Mich., track, leading the way with five wins. More impressively, four of those wins have come in the last five Michigan races, including a season sweep at the track last year.

But Harvick is still winless this season. In fact, in one month — Sept. 19 — it’ll mark the one-year anniversary of Harvick’s last Cup win to date, which is insane to consider after watching him post nine wins just last year.

That winless streak can’t be chalked up to Harvick suddenly forgetting how to drive. Stewart-Haas Racing faced setbacks early in the season due to changes in NASCAR’s inspection process regarding the wheel wells. Those changes cost counts of downforce for the SHR cars in particular.

As summer approached, so did the emergence of Hendrick Motorsports. During the team’s six-race winning streak, if you didn’t have an HMS Chevrolet, then there was pretty much only one spot in the top five available for you.

Finally, the past three weeks, an SHR car has shown race-winning speed. But if I told you that SHR won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and was in contention for the win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course until a late-race penalty, you’d surely think I was talking about Harvick, right?

Not so. After seven years of carrying the team, Harvick’s teammates have finally stepped up and been better than him, even if it’s only been for a short period of time. Aric Almirola got that NHMS win to steal a playoff spot, and Chase Briscoe was so close to doing the same at Indy. In those two races, Harvick finished sixth and 14th.

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Will Harvick reclaim his spot as the team’s premier driver, or has Father Time finally started to catch up with the future NASCAR Hall of Famer?

Yes, Harvick had one of the greatest seasons in Cup history last year (and should’ve been the champion, but another issue for another day), but a driver’s time in the NASCAR spotlight often ends quickly.

Just look at Jimmie Johnson. He wins his seventh championship in 2016, then opens 2017 with three wins in the opening 13 races. Then he goes his final three-and-a-half years without a win. Like Harvick, his team and manufacturer struggles contributed to his sudden drought, but it’s crazy Johnson could’ve find his way back to victory lane even just once in those final years. He was 41 years old when he won for the final time.

Richard Petty provided NASCAR with one of its biggest moments at Daytona International Speedway in 1984, winning his 200th race in thrilling fashion with President Ronald Reagan in attendance. He did so just days after his 47th birthday.

Petty never won again in his eight seasons after that. Though I do think that story ends a little differently had he accepted Rick Hendrick’s offer to drive for him instead of going to Mike Curb before eventually returning to a Petty Enterprises that had fallen behind.

David Pearson was the third winningest driver of the 1970s, despite running a part-time schedule the entire decade. But that all ended at Darlington Raceway in 1979 after he rage-quit Wood Brothers Racing when he left pit road and the tire came off the car.

Ironically, Pearson won the next two races held at Darlington, including one where he was subbing for an injured Dale Earnhardt, and then he never won again. He spent the rest of his career bouncing around teams and even starting his own operation, but to no avail. He was 45 years old at the time of his final win, but maybe that goes differently had he and the Woods not split up.

Darrell Waltrip started his own team at 44 years old, and it actually appeared to be working. Waltrip won five times in the team’s first two years. In 1992, Waltrip’s age 45 season, he won three times, including back-to-back wins in the fall races at Bristol Motor Speedway and Darlington.

Those turned out to be the final two wins of Waltrip’s career, and he didn’t even get to celebrate the last one properly as it was rain shortened. Waltrip competed for eight more seasons without finding his way back to victory lane. Though that story might also end differently had Waltrip not stopped getting engines from Hendrick, or even left HMS in the first place.

Cale Yarborough also started his own team and didn’t fare so well because of it the final two years of his career. But he had already gone winless the year before starting his own team, in his final year with Harry Ranier. Yarborough was 46 years old at the time of his final win in 1985.

In his interview after crashing out of the 1988 Daytona 500, Yarborough said that he’d be back the following year for the Great American Race and would win it. But instead Yarborough retired at the end of the season, which shows that even a driver doesn’t know when his final win will be.

Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are two of the rare drivers to get a win in their retirement seasons (although Gordon coming back part time in the No. 88 the following year kind of negates that), but both were younger than Harvick is now when they won for the final time.

Harvick is 45 years old. Only Bobby Allison and Lee Petty have won a championship at that age, and no driver has ever won a championship at age 46 or older. His historic season last year already defied the decline of most other Hall of Fame drivers at his age.

So bouncing back from a down season so far to win a ton of races and a championships shouldn’t be the expectation for Harvick. Rather, it would make him the exception if he did.

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That’s not to say Harvick will never win again. He’s the guy who won in just his third time out after replacing Earnhardt. He’s won countless times in the playoffs with his back against the wall. Harvick has made a career of defying the odds and could do so again by winning more races at his age.

Even looking past the winless part, all of Harvick’s number are worse than they typically have been during his time at SHR. He’s on pace to post single-digit top fives in a season for the first time since he’s been there, and his average finish is the lowest it’s been since 2014 (the year he won the championship). He’s only led 105 laps at the two-thirds mark of the season. He’s never had a year at SHR during which he led less than 850 laps.

Granted, Harvick isn’t having a horrible season. Even though he’s winless and even though he could miss the playoffs if there are two new winners not named Denny Hamlin the next two races, he’s still posted stats that a majority of the Cup field would kill for. That average finish he’s posting this year is still good for third best among full-time drivers. He’s tied for the second most top 10s and lead-lap finishes.

So Harvick is still having a good year. He’s just not having a year comparable to what we’re used to from him.

To quote Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on The Pat McAfee Show, “A lot of times, down years for me are career years for other quarterbacks.”

Well, in this situation, down years for Harvick are career years for other drivers.

And even if Harvick’s stats get worse the next year and the year after that, that won’t define how we remember him. We still remember the drivers I mentioned above as absolute legends despite riding around uncompetitively their last few years.

Harvick’s legacy in NASCAR is set. All he can do is add to it. And he would made an even more giant leap in his legendary status this weekend by tacking on one more win at a track he’s enjoyed so much success at, at an age at which so few have succeeded.

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Don S

Kevin is highly skilled, he races the track not the competition.
Even at age 45 he’s a good as the car he is provided and most times better

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