Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – KANSAS CITY, KS – Not only is Kevin Harvick the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ winningest race car driver this season, during his time in front of the racing media Friday at Kansas Speedway, it was apparent he is also one of the most respected competitors in the garage.
The 42-year old veteran is as highly regarded for opinion out of the race car as for his championship work on track, which continues in Saturday night’s KC Masterpiece 400 (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Coming off his series best fourth win at Dover last week, Harvick appears to have his A-game tuned up behind the steering wheel. Reporters this week wanted to know his thoughts on a wide range of topics from gauging wind direction at the Kansas 1.5-miler to who fans will crown as the sport’s newest Most Popular Driver.
And as he has throughout his 18-year Cup championship career, Harvick addressed the press conference with a healthy mix of candor and humor. He is absolutely optimistic about his chances in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford again this week at Kansas, where he is a two-time winner and three-time polesitter, a series-best mark tying him with Jimmie Johnson.
His 197.773 mph qualifying lap in October, 2014 is still a track record.
“I feel like this has honestly been one of our best race tracks as I’ve gone through the years and especially since I’ve been with SHR,” Harvick said. “I feel like we haven’t won as many races here as we should have, some of our own doing and some of it just circumstance but we’ve always just run really well here and I look forward to coming here for a number of reasons.
Harvick is in the midst of one of the best season starts in recent NASCAR history. He’s had four wins already – at Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Dover – and has eight top-five finishes through 11 races, leading a series-most 741 laps.
Even with all Harvick’s success, Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kyle Busch leads the championship standings, himself a three-time winner with seven top-three finishes not even a third of the way through the season. These two competitors, unmistakably the class of the field.
Yet Harvick was quick to point out Friday that it’s probably neither of these two title-contenders who will inherit the fan vote from retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the sport’s 2018 “Most Popular Driver” crown. That, Harvick said confidently, will go to Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott.
“When you look at our sport, there’s only a few guys that come through this sport that have the name, the history, the heritage of that NASCAR family. … and Chase is one of those guys,” Harvick said.
“He’s done a great job of carrying himself. He’s the next Dale Jr.,” Harvick said. “… Is he going to win enough to be the megastar? At some point.”
“He’s a star right now. Winning takes you to that next level of being a bigger star. Chase Elliott winning is better for our sport.”
And while Harvick acknowledged Elliott’s place in so many fans’ hearts, he did grin when asked about a huge compliment he himself received from a special fan this week.
Earnhardt revealed on Twitter that when his grandmother – the late seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt’s mother – stopped by to see her newborn great-granddaughter, she reminded Junior that she is a Harvick fan.
“She tells me she still watches every Cup race on Sunday and pulls for @KevinHarvick because he took over my dad’s ride way back when,” Earnhardt posted on his Twitter account.
To which Harvick replied, “Woah, that’s a lot of pressure!”
Asked about it again Friday, Harvick smiled widely.
“Seeing the reaction from a lot of fans is a lot of responsibility, honestly. As I said on the show Tuesday night (Happy’s Hour on SiriusXM Radio), when you look at the Earnhardt family in general, the legacy they have in our sport. … it’s a major backbone of what has happened in this sport,” Harvick said.
“When you look at that, I feel like I have a small part of where that changed, took place and where it’s going.
“For me, there’s a lot of pressure but also a lot of pride in that as well, trying to do right, whether it’s for the family or those old Senior fans, you want to do to the right thing. I haven’t always done the right thing but I feel like as you go through the years you transition more into the right direction than you did in the beginning so for me, personally, that feels good.”