On Sunday (Feb. 26) at Auto Club Speedway, Kevin Harvick celebrated his 750th-consecutive start in the NASCAR Cup Series.
It’s an impressive feat of endurance. He joins Jeff Gordon (797 consecutive starts) and Ricky Rudd (788) as the only drivers to start 750 races in a row. And assuming that Harvick starts every race in the 2023 season, he will retire with 784 consecutive starts dating back to April 2002.
…but wait. Harvick’s Cup career didn’t begin in April 2002, it began in February 2001. When did he miss a race?
That missed race was at Martinsville Speedway on April 14, 2002. Harvick was racing in the Craftsman Truck Series the day prior, and during that race, he said that he would spin Coy Gibbs over the radio and then proceeded to do so.
Harvick was parked for the remainder of the event, and while such an incident wouldn’t traditionally draw extensive discipline from NASCAR, Harvick was already on probation following a post-race altercation with Greg Biffle in the Xfinity Series at Bristol Motor Speedway a month prior. Thus, NASCAR made the decision to suspend Harvick for the Cup race the following day.
And that one race will deny Harvick the title as NASCAR’s next Iron Man. If Harvick hadn’t been suspended, Auto Club would’ve been his 793rd start instead of his 750th, and he would only be five away from Gordon’s record. And if he were to start every race this season, he would be the first driver to crack 800 in a row and finish with 827.
Of course, Harvick also had the option to keep racing beyond the expiration of his contract in 2023. If he had decided to sign an extension, he would have broken the record in the 14th race of 2024. And that was a question I had asked him at Phoenix Raceway last November (question is at 4:49):
Harvick made himself very clear: he didn’t have any interest in going for the record. And with 60 Cup wins, the 2014 championship and a plethora of victories in NASCAR’s crown jewels, he has nothing left to prove on the racetrack.
Thus, Gordon’s Iron Man record will live to see another day. But with Harvick out of the running, are there any serious challengers for 798 starts in a row?
Perhaps — but the record won’t be on thin ice for a long, long time.
Martin Truex Jr. has the longest consecutive starts streak behind Harvick with 615 in a row as of the most recent Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 5.
His streak began in the 2006 Daytona 500.
If Truex were to hypothetically start every race (and every season had 36 races), he would become the next Iron Man in the sixth race of the 2028 season. By that point he would be 47 years old, roughly the same age that Harvick is now.
Is it possible? Yes. Is it probable? Likely not when considering the fact that most drivers are retiring in their early-to-mid 40s since the start of 2010 — Harvick has been the exception, not the rule.
Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, who began racing full-time in 2005 and 2006, respectively, are both out of the running. Busch missed one race for a suspension in 2011 and 11 races in 2015 for an injury, while Hamlin missed five races between 2013 and 2014 due to injuries.
With those factors in mind, a new Iron Man has to meet the following criteria:
- Started racing in Cup in their early 20s, if not their late teens.
- Not missed a single race due to injury or suspension.
- Talented enough to stick around for over 20 seasons.
By using the above criteria, Joey Logano is the driver with the greatest immediate chance of the Iron Man title. He was a Cup Series rookie at 18 years old, he has yet to miss a race and he is coming off of a four-win championship season at the age of 32.
Logano currently sits at 507 starts in a row, and if every season were to have 36 races once again, Logano would break the record in the sixth race of the 2031 season. And how old would Logano be in that race? 40.
Again, it’s impossible to predict what will happen in the next eight years. Logano may miss a race or decide to retire before then. But if everything stays constant, he would be at an age where it wouldn’t be a surprise to still see him behind the wheel.
And to show how unpredictable life can be, Chase Elliott’s streak of 254 consecutive starts ended at Las Vegas last weekend after he fractured his left leg while snowboarding.
It’s 15 years down the road, but Elliott would’ve broken the Iron Man record using the same scenario in the sixth race of the 2038 season at age 42. And given his early start and success in the Cup Series, he absolutely had the potential to stay in Cup that long if it had come down to it. But he, like many other drivers that have missed starts due to injury, are now out of the running.
Between drivers that were injured, drivers that debuted too late and drivers that have just started their Cup careers, Logano is the only driver that appears to have a semblance of striking distance toward the record unless Truex decides to race for another five seasons.
The fact that no one else is remotely close shows how NASCAR’s Ironman is an achievement of talent, perseverance and endurance with some luck involved. And all it takes is one moment, one unfortunate event to knock a driver out of the running.
That one moment almost happened to Gordon, as he dealt with injuries throughout his career (most notably a back injury after a crash at Las Vegas in 2008).
And just like Harvick, Gordon’s streak was almost ended by a suspension as well, as he was fined $100,000 after intentionally wrecking Clint Bowyer at Phoenix in 2012. Gordon was ultimately not suspended for the season finale at Homestead and ironically won the race instead.
If Gordon had sat out, Rudd would’ve kept his record as Iron Man, a record that he first took from Terry Labonte in May 2002.
But even then, 797 consecutive starts is an incredible accomplishment. So is 788 consecutive starts for Rudd. So is Harvick’s 751 in a row and counting. And it will be several years, if not another decade before a driver starts challenging those numbers again.
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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