Red-hot Harvick: Driver comes to Monster Mile on a big roll

Kevin Harvick will definitely be one of the drivers to beat when the Cup Series returns to Dover International Speedway for a doubleheader of racing this weekend. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — When most drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series approach their mid-40s, talk begins to ramp up about slowing down the pace and retiring from the weekly grind of racing.

Kevin Harvick, on the other hand, isn’t giving any kind of hint at the age of 44 that he is going away anytime soon, and he is actually picking up speed as his career rolls along. He is signed to race for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) through 2023.

“I’m not getting out of the racecar,” Harvick said at Texas Motor Speedway last year. “I feel really comfortable with where I’m at as far as how I feel in the race car, where my home life is as far as balance with the kids. I feel fairly confident that being a part of the TV side (broadcasting) of things is something that I want to do in the future, but it’s not going to happen in the next couple of years, I can tell you that.

“We have a lot of things that are going really well, the race car is one of them. There’s no way that (retirement) happens.”

Harvick, who drives the No. 4 Ford Mustang, will definitely be one of the drivers to beat when the Cup Series returns to Dover International Speedway for a doubleheader of racing this weekend, making up for spring’s race at the “Monster Mile” that was postponed by COVID-19.

The Cup Series will compete in a pair of Drydene 311’s at Dover, taking the green flag at 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Harvick comes to Dover with a series’ best six victories so far this season. As he gets older, it appears as if he is getting faster.

Harvick credits his success to his ability to stay focused. He won a total of five races in his first five seasons in the Cup Series but has won 24 races over the past five seasons.

“It’s hard to tell what the end of the year is going to bring as far as this could be the last win, you might win six more,” Harvick said. “You just never know. I think the most important thing is to stay focused on the week-to-week attitude of trying to prepare the best that you can. Win or lose last week, on Monday you have to be preparing for the next week.

“It’s ultra-important to have a short-term memory. I think our team does a really good job with that, making sure we’re prepared for the next race the best that we can. You take all of that you can out of that on Monday morning, then move on to the next one.”

Finding his groove at Dover

The high-banked, one-mile concrete layout at Dover is one that Harvick – the 2014 Cup Series champion – also took some time in mastering.

Harvick drove to his first Dover win in October 2015 in his 28th career start at the track, when he started 15th, led 355 of 400 laps, and beat runner-up Kyle Busch by 2.639 seconds. He scored his second win at the concrete oval in May 2018, when he started second, led 201 of 400 laps and finished 7.450 seconds ahead of SHR teammate Clint Bowyer.

His history at Dover appears to mirror that of his career in the Cup Series.

“I think as you look at Dover, if you look at our history, when I was at RCR (Richard Childress Racing), it was probably one of our worst racetracks,” Harvick said. “It’s been one of our best since I came to SHR in 2014. For me, the thing I love about Dover is just the fact that it’s hammer-down and you’re up on top of the wheel for 400 laps.

“It’s violent. Everything about Dover is violent. It’s fast. You can just be aggressive with the car and you have to get in there and wrestle that thing all day because it’s bumpy, slings you up out of the corners, dumps you down in the corners, and there’s just a lot going on. It’s one of my favorite racetracks to go and race on.”

Harvick certainly has captured the attention of his fellow-competitors with his performances on all the tracks this season.

“He’s very happy, I can tell you that,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “All of us growing up, working, racing towards the goal of doing just that: being one of the guys that’s winning races, winning championships. He’s the envy of the garage right now because of having the most wins. That’s really the reality of it.

“Generally, after most races there’s only one guy happy. I would say on most weeks he’s probably the happiest out of the whole bunch right now because he’s won the most races. It’s a hell of a feeling. It’s hard to explain. It’s hard to keep doing it, back it up obviously. But they’ve done a great job this year. They have a great team as well. Hopefully, we can close the gap here shortly.”

Harvick is certainly no stranger to pressure.

He began racing in the Cup Series after taking over the driver’s seat in legendary Dale Earnhardt’s Sr.’s car a week after the seven-time champion was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Then, on March 11, 2001, in the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, only three weeks after Earnhardt’s death, Harvick won his first career Winston Cup race in just his third start by narrowly edging Jeff Gordon.

Rodney Childers has watched from atop the pit box as Harvick has seized the spotlight in the Cup Series this season.

“It’s definitely one of the best (seasons) we’ve had as a group,” Childers said. “2018 was a special year with winning – winning eight points races, the All-Star Race, to have nine total was a great year for us and a great year for our company, too. I think that year Stewart-Haas had won 11 races.

“This year ranks right up there. It’s been a great year for us. There’s still a lot of races to go, a lot of races that we can win. Your goal is always to go and try to win all of them. That’s probably not going to happen, but that’s what we try to do, put our best foot forward.”

Climbing up the record book

As Harvick and his race team roll along, they are quickly catching and passing numerous legendary names in the NASCAR record book. He is currently tied with Rusty Wallace with 55 career victories – 10th on the all-time win list – and is one away from Kyle Busch.

“Yeah, well, that’s a lot of pressure,” Harvick said, of his status among NASCAR’s elite drivers. “I ask myself that all the time. It’s what have you done for the sport, what are you doing for the sport because when you start talking about Junior Johnson and Lee Petty and Rusty Wallace and Ned Jarrett, all those guys that are on that list around my name on the win list, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that for our sport.

“I think as you look at that number, I’ve been fortunate to drive a lot of really fast race cars and we’ve been fortunate to be successful throughout the years, but when you start getting up there with those names and those icons in our sport, they’ve been a part of a lot of big moments and helping change the sport in a positive direction. That’s the way I look at it and the responsibility that I think I have.”

This weekend will mark Harvick’s 39th and 40th Cup Series starts at Dover. In addition to his two wins, he has one pole, seven top-five finishes, 18 top-10s and has led 1,443 laps.

It’s not just about him, Harvick says, it’s about the entire team.

“I think this is really something that we’ve been fortunate to excel at, adapt,” Harvick said. “We’re good at adapting and adjusting, trying to figure things out on the fly. I think that’s what experience brings you with this particular race team.

“I love my guys to death. They do a great job. I hate not being able to celebrate with them. That’s the part that really frustrates me more than anything.”