Saturday, September 30, 2023

NASCAR Crash Course: How replacing Dale Earnhardt prepared Kevin Harvick for anything

It was halfway through the winner’s press conference at Michigan International Speedway when Kevin Harvick let down his guard. He’d been peppered with questions about ending a 65-race winless streak, the longest of his career since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

Most athletes would throw out some emotional soundbite, a story about how much they’ve struggled under the weight of it all. The slump got so bad critics openly wondered if the former Cup champion, at age 46, would ever win a NASCAR race again.

Not Harvick; it’s because he never suffered. Even during the lowest points, nothing compared to the ultimate crisis of his career.

“There’s really no match for jumping in a race car and taking over for Dale Earnhardt,” Harvick said of the tragedy that rocked NASCAR back in 2001. “There’s nothing like that was for the first six or eight weeks. You just can’t match it. Never will. Never come close…

“I mean, there’s never going to be a media session that big again. There’s never going to be a conversation that big again. There’s never going to be a bigger moment in my career.”

It was an insightful answer about how Harvick’s been so even-keeled since a nine-win, career-defining season in 2020 wilted without a championship. His solution was simple: go to work the same way. Prepare the same amount. Stay invested in the same people, including crew chief Rodney Childers, who built his No. 4 program into a yearly contender.

“Nobody really ever changed a lick,” Childers said. “Every single morning, we act the same. We talk about the same things of what we need to do better and when we need to do it. Through all that – like when [reporter Claire B. Lang of SIRIUS XM Radio] told me it had been 60-something races [since we won], I had no idea it had been that long.”

So, when Harvick came to Michigan, a track he’d won four of the last six races on, his team believed — despite leading just 13 laps all season. Finally, a few good breaks came their way, contact between two contenders (Christopher Bell and Ross Chastain) causing a late caution before a third one (Denny Hamlin) suffered through a pit road penalty.

That left Harvick in position to capitalize, up front and able to take control of the race over Bubba Wallace on the final restart. Leading the final 38 laps, Harvick cruised to a 2.9-second win between two drivers whose only route to the playoffs was victory lane.

“You just keep grinding away and start over again next week,” Harvick said. “Tomorrow will just be a start-over process for Richmond.

Traffic Report

Green: Bubba Wallace — Wallace may be disappointed with a runner-up result, but four straight top-10 finishes in Cup is now the longest such streak of his career. Michigan was easily his most competitive Cup race outside of Daytona and Talladega, leading 22 laps and earning his first career pole.

Yellow: Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex, Jr. — Both drivers had strong Michigan races, finishing inside the top 6. They’re second and fourth in the standings, respectively, separated by just 19 points. But if the season ended now? Only Blaney would make the playoffs after Harvick became the 15th race winner this season. Just one spot remains for a winless driver, leaving these two to battle it out for the postseason unless someone else reaches victory lane and TKO’s them both.

Red: Kyle Busch — An innocent victim in a multi-car wreck, Busch found himself inside the garage by lap 24. It’s his eighth finish outside the top 10 (including that Pocono DQ) at a time he’s playing a high-stakes free agency game with Toyota.

What else isn’t helping? Ty Gibbs, his younger, cheaper potential replacement at Joe Gibbs Racing, won his fifth NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Michigan before earning his first career top 10 in Cup subbing for an injured Kurt Busch.

Speeding Ticket: Denny Hamlin — Hamlin was in position to win, leading 38 laps when trouble ensued on his final stop. A tire slipped away on pit road, forcing an additional crew member to hop over and retrieve it. The second he jumped over pit wall, NASCAR threw a penalty that took Hamlin from the lead back to 23rd.

It’s the 15th penalty for Hamlin this season, leading the series as a long list of self-induced mistakes keep hampering a potential title run. Just the Pocono DQ alone is a 10-point swing between he and point leader Chase Elliott that could make the difference in who advances into the Championship 4.

“I’m not really sure how you fix it,” Hamlin said after charging back to third. “I’m not smart enough to run the department to fix it. I just hope that we make strides and keep getting better.”


Once again, Ross Chastain making contact with another driver is in the spotlight. But is it really his fault this time?

Chastain was on fresh tires, trying to work his way past Bell after his final green-flag pit stop. It’s unsure whether Bell thought he was clear or simply felt like he was battling Chastain for position (they were on different pit cycles).

Either way, the contact ruined both their days when they could have been fighting for the win; the two combined to lead 60 laps. Bell wound up 26th while Chastain suffered his season high third straight race outside the top 10 (24th).

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