Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Kevin Harvick has positioned himself to make NASCAR history in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 – a victory in the iconic race would give the 42-year-old former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion his second three-race winning streak of the season. And this weekend will mark only the 13th race of the schedule.
That Harvick and his veteran No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team could accomplish such an impressive mark was never a question. And perhaps the motivation was only stoked in the preseason when Harvick very publically cautioned excited NASCAR fans not to hand over the championship mantle to NASCAR’s young and ultra-talented new generation of 20-somethings…just yet.
With plenty of good reason, much of the lead-up into the 2018 season included talk about the fresh new group of young drivers competing in the Monster Energy Series ranks this season – from Hendrick’s three 20-somethings (William Byron, 20, Chase Elliott, 22, and Alex Bowman, 25), to Richard Petty Motorsports’ 24-year old Bubba Wallace to Joe Gibbs Racing’s Erik Jones (21) to Penske Racing’s Ryan Blaney (24), and Chip Ganassi Racing’s 25-year old Kyle Larson.
Gibbs driver Daniel Suarez – who finished runner-up to Harvick in the Monster Energy All-Star race last Saturday night – is only 26, as is Germain Racing’s Ty Dillon. This year’s Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon is only 28.
And while the sport is in an enviable and exciting time of bright young and upcoming talent, Harvick and a couple of his veteran counterparts are proving they aren’t quite ready to turn over Victory Lane – or the championship trophy hoist – to the youngsters quite yet. Or at least not without a valiant fight.
It’s a healthy rivalry that has only motivated all the competitors. And it’s literally a win-win for the fans.
“We need to introduce new people and new stars in our sport,” Kevin Harvick said when asked what sort of message his win in Atlanta in February sent to the young drivers. “I don’t have a message other than our sport is great.
“I love racing cars. And we have to have great competitors to [give] the diverse fan base people to root for. Some people like calm, shy, Ryan Blaney. Or [there is] Chase Elliott who’s been around racing and has those deep ties to NASCAR and the Southern roots of our sport.
“Those guys are all important. When everybody realizes how important the young guys are to the old guys and the tweeners have to do the same. There’s no two young guys that are going to make it. There’s no two old guys that are going to make it. This is all about everybody.”
And that’s perhaps the real beauty of Harvick’s headline-grabbing work of late.
He is beating the young guys aiming to establish themselves and he’s beating the other veterans intent on proving they haven’t lost a step. There’s a lot of competitive motivation to reckon with. And for the record, as the new superstars of the sport gain their footing and comfort level, 10 of the 12 races to open this season have been won by a driver at least 33 years of age…or older.
“We’re in a great spot in our sport because we have these young guys that are fired up and can drive the car fast and have great stories and have ties to great family heritage of our sport, and you have guys that you’ve never heard of,” Harvick said. “And that’s what you have to have.
“The diversity from young to old is something that we haven’t had in a long time, and we’re going to corral everybody to make sure that they realize that we all need each other in order to make this sport what we all want it to be.”
All those racing against Harvick – and all those watching the racing – can, at the very least, appreciate the effort this team is putting in.
Harvick has won almost half of the season’s races (five of 12) and earned a pair of Busch Pole Awards at Talladega and Kansas, too. His work includes a three-race winning streak from Atlanta in late February to Las Vegas and then Phoenix in early March and now the current two-race streak including trophies at Dover and Kansas.
He has only two finishes worse than seventh place – a 31st-place effort in the Daytona 500 because of a crash and a 35th-place ending at Auto Club Speedway, also because of contact. That lone seventh-place result came at Bristol. Harvick has top-five showings in the other nine races.
On Saturday night, Harvick won the Monster Energy All-Star race at Charlotte – a non-points-paying victory, but a solid message that this team is unwavering in its current state of excellence.
Seven times previously, the All-Star race winner has also won the Coca-Cola 600, Kurt Busch was the last to do it in 2010. Five drivers have won the All-Star race and the season championship in the same season. Jimmie Johnson did it twice, the last time in 2013. Interestingly, those five drivers (Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon and Johnson) combined to win the All-Star race and Cup title in the same year 10 times.
“I think everything so far has just been, you kind of just have to laugh and enjoy it,’’ Harvick said late Saturday night after celebrating his second career All-Star win.
“It’s like I said in Kansas, it’s kind of a game at this particular time because you want to keep him focused on what he’s doing. I think obviously Zippy [Stewart-Haas Vice President of Competition Greg Zipadelli], from his side of things, has been in this position a lot. There are a lot of things that people talk about, stuff like that, and it’s really about trying to come to the racetrack with the same mentality that you did.
“It’s racing like you’re losing. If you can trick yourself into doing that every week, not get too high during the highs, really feel like you need to keep pushing to make things better, that’s really the mindset that everybody has right now.’’
Five race wins, plus an All-Star trophy…not a bad start for an “old” guy!