2020: The Season That Got Away From Harvick

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 3 2020

Kevin Harvick’s race and Cup championship hopes came to a crashing halt at Martinsville on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Jim Fluharty)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

In the end, “The Closer” couldn’t and “Happy” wasn’t. Welcome to the sport of auto racing.

Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway was every bit as notable for who didn’t succeed as for who did.

Succeeding were Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and, especially, Chase Elliott.

Not succeeding was Kevin Harvick. He finished 17th in the 500-lap event at NASCAR’s shortest track and in doing so, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver and his team seemingly defied the odds and common sense.

For 34 races, Harvick and his team buffed and polished a resume of success that has been as good or better than any over the last couple years. There were the wins (a series-best nine of them), the top-5 finishes (a series-best 20 of them) and the top-10s (a series-best 26 of them).

His cars were not only fast, they were reliable and carefully driven – Harvick was the only driver among the top 35 in points who did not have a DNF through the 34 races.

He arrived at Martinsville as the “regular season” champion and with a series-test 67 playoff points.

Harvick was not the field’s dominant driver when it came to stats at the Martinsville paperclip-shaped track, but he was pretty darned good – a victory and top-10 finishes in half of his 38 starts there.

Kevin Harvick quickly found himself racing will back in the pack on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Jim Fluharty)

And all Harvick needed to be on Sunday was to be pretty darned good in order to advance into next weekend’s Championship 4 race in Phoenix. 

It turns out that the driver the call “The Closer” and his team couldn’t summon up “pretty darn good”. 

After the race started, Harvick quickly began losing ground on the track and, consequently, in the points race.

On Lap 180, while running 25th, Harvick suffered a cut tire and had to pit. That put him two laps down. But four laps later, the yellow flag waved and Harvick took the wave-around and moved to just one lap down.

He stayed a lap down and in danger of not advancing to the Championship 4 until there was just over 100 laps to go. At that point, a caution came out with Harvick the first car a lap down and his day took a big turn for the better as he got back on the lead lap.

From there, he battled Brad Keselowski of Team Penske and Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing the rest of the way for the final, points-determined final-round berth.

But coming to the finish line, Harvick wrecked as he tried to pass Kyle Busch to grab the one point that would have given him the berth and his high hopes for a 2020 championship ended.

The guy who also wears the nickname of “Happy”, took a deep breath after getting out of his wrecked race car.“Yeah, we just weren’t good and everybody on our Mobil 1 Ford just kept battling to make it better and gave ourselves a shot there at the end.  I tried to drive into the door of the 18 to get that last point to make it and spun him out.  I don’t usually drive like that, but you’re trying to make it to the Championship 4 and doing everything you can.  Just came up short. Just not the night we needed.”

The Stewart-Haas pit crew couldn’t help Kevin Harvick get what he needed at Martinsville. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

During his Zoom presser a bit later, Harvick also took a bit of a shot at the bizarre, hybrid, made-for-TV nature of NASCAR’s current cut-down, stage-racing system.

“That’s the system that we work in and it’s obviously skewed more towards entertainment than the whole year,” Harvick said, “so it’s exciting to watch and has that format that goes with it and you take them as they come and we race within the system that they give us and do our best.  It just didn’t work out for us.  The last three weeks didn’t go exactly how we needed them to and you’ve got to be right when you get to this Round of 8.”

He might also have said something that everyone who’s ever turned a wrench or shifted a gear at a race track has thought, if not said, after a tough day: That’s racin’.

From time to time, editors call and ask for a racing story with a betting angle – that is, to handicap a race for people who like to gamble their hard-earned money on the outcome of an auto race.

And it feels odd. Odd because as everyone who follows the sport knows, in racing, big, ugly trophies and over-sized checks do not always go to the best driver, the best team, the best car or, even, a combination of those things.

In auto racing, one’s fate can be decided by things outside of a driver’s and/or team’s control. Things like the whims of weather, physics, manufacturing and moronic brain and talent fades by any one of the other drivers on the track.

Havick finished second at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago. That gave him a seemingly bullet-proof points lead in the Round of 8. Then came a 16th-place finish at Texas the following week and while that hurt, it did not cripple.

Then came Martinsville and the fragile, capricious nature of racing. And a history lesson.

“Look,” Harvick said, “these championship aren’t like winning like Petty and Earnhardt used to win them.  You have to put them together three weeks at a time and it comes down to one race and it came down to one race for us tonight and came up short.”

Havick has won a Cup championship (2014) and he’s won 58 races since he famously took the Richard Childress Racing seat after the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. at Daytona in 2001. By NASCAR’s rather charitable standards, all that is undoubtedly enough to get him into the Hall of Fame.

But he’s 44 years old and is finishing off his 20th season in Cup. Though he looks to still have cockpit chops, well, so did Jimmie Johnson five years ago when he won five races and his seventh series championship at age 41. A record eighth championship appeared inevitable for a guy who was, and is, in triathlete-caliber physical shape.

Another unique aspect of auto racing, and NASCAR in particular, is the constantly changing mechanicals of the vehicles. Things like bump stops, coil binding, tapered spacers, roof vanes and rear wings come and go. 

Some drivers – especially older drivers who get set in their ways – can’t or won’t adapt to the resulting wild swings in the handling of the cars. People I respect are of the opinion that Johnson’s fade into winlessness the last three season can be traced to that.

So, 2020 just may have represented Harvick’s last best shot to become a multi-time champion. 

Though he was philosophical in his post-race press conference, saying,  “I’ve been punched in the gut a lot harder.  We won nine races, had a great year, and, like I said, the championship is kind of a bonus.  It would be great to win it, obviously, but I’d rather go through the year and win races and do the things that we did and just came up short.”, he also must know that opportunities like the one he had this year become harder to come by every year for a driver his age.

So, 2020 is almost over, and it most certainly will be viewed by racing history as the one that got away from Kevin Harvick.

When asked about this year’s season-ending, championship-deciding race at Phoenix this coming weekend, Harvick said, “I just want to get the season over with.”

After what happened the past two weekends at Texas and Martinsville in the wake of the previous 33 races of 2020, that’s understandable.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 3 2020
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