It hasn’t been easy for Kevin Harvick in his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing. On many a Sprint Cup weekend this season, he’s been the fastest driver but hasn’t come away with the trophy for one reason after another.
But none of that matters now. As Harvick himself said after winning Sunday’s Eliminator Round finale at Phoenix International Raceway, who cares?
What matters is beating Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, and Ryan Newman next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. If he does that, he’ll finally earn that elusive first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship and all the peaks and valleys the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team have been through will have been worth it.
“I think as you went through the beginning of the year and those problems and different things, nobody ever got wound up at each other that I know of,” Harvick said. “Maybe these guys yell at each other at the shop, maybe. But as far as the perception that was sent to me and the people that I was around, nobody ever got frustrated.
“Everybody just kept their nose down. They knew how fast our cars were and the capability of everything going on. Everybody supported each other and fixed the problems and just kept grinding away.”
Still, the 4 team’s ability to squander one potential winning performance after another over the summer made plenty of observers doubt if Harvick would be involved in the championship – even with the blazing speed that he possessed, week in and week out.
Harvick and SHR knew that they couldn’t afford such calamity in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. So they made the call to have the pit crews of Harvick and teammate/boss Tony Stewart swap sides, giving Harvick five members of the crew that helped Stewart win the 2011 Cup title (only Harvick’s original gasman remained).
However, while Harvick’s pit road problems were seemingly solved, the ups and downs continued.
He was well above the cutoff to advance by the time he reached the Challenger Round finale at Dover. But another potential victory went by the boards there due to a broken shock absorber. More bad luck appeared the next week at Kansas, when he came into the pit late for what he thought was a flat tire but was simply poor handling; he was relegated to a 12th place finish.
But that showing was erased in the Contender middle race at Charlotte, where everything finally went Harvick’s way and he captured his first victory since the Southern 500 at Darlington in April.
The Charlotte win vaulted him into the Eliminator Round, which then began as horribly as Harvick could have imagined at Martinsville thanks to contact and a crash resulting from a spinning Matt Kenseth. Harvick finished 33rd and promptly vowed that Kenseth would not win the championship.
Then came last weekend at Texas, which saw him finish second but also ignite controversy when he basically pushed Brad Keselowski into a post-race fight with Jeff Gordon.
Harvick said he felt Keselowski needed to “man up,” but ultimately, instead of focusing on Phoenix, Harvick found himself wondering if he had been a good role model for his young son.
“I feel like the last two weeks have been good learning lessons for me in how to approach things with people that are your friends and situations and things when you do things wrong,” said Harvick, who added that he’s moved on from the Kenseth episode.
“Last week ate me up. I know from a competitor’s standpoint, it was good to have those guys going at each other, but from a dad standpoint, it was like, I don’t know that that was the right thing to do. It’s a new balance for me, but in the end, it is what it is, and you move on, and you take those as life lessons and try to learn from them.”
Luckily for Harvick, he didn’t have to learn anything about doing well at Phoenix. He’s long known those tricks.
And on Sunday in the Valley of the Sun, Harvick once again showed why he’s the king of the desert. After taking the lead early, none of his rivals could hunt him down, even with a track record 12 cautions giving them ample opportunity to attack him on restarts.
Two of those 12 yellows came within the final 25 laps. But it still felt like the outcome was inevitable. Such was the strength of Harvick and his No. 4 car.
Now, Harvick and his team will work to make sure they’re equally as stout in South Florida seven days from now. The camps of Hamlin, Logano, and Newman will bring their A-games, too, but if Harvick replicates what he did on Sunday, it’s likely that he’ll be the one celebrating in the end.
“You just go down there and approach the week just like we approached this week: Have fun with it, prepare your cars just like you’ve done all year, and feel like you’ve already been in that position as far as knowing how to prepare and how to mentally prepare yourself going into the week because we just came here and did it this week,” he said.
“We won the race with our backs against the wall, had great pit stops, we had great practices. They prepared the car great in the shop. Just do it one more week.”