Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: One Last Playoff Run for Kevin Harvick

After Saturday (Aug. 26) night’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway, Kevin Harvick was noticeably tight-lipped about his title hopes. He declined to predict how he and the No. 4 team would fare in their final postseason together. Harvick is set to retire from NASCAR at the end of this season, and he is the only driver from Stewart-Haas Racing to qualify for the playoffs. However, Harvick has not been immune to SHR’s struggles. He remains winless through the end of the regular season, and the No. 4 team will have to step up its game in order to send Harvick out on top.

If there is one thing about which SHR can be sure, it’s that Harvick knows how to be successful in the playoffs. He won the first championship decided under the 16-driver playoff format back in 2014 – his first season with Stewart-Haas. Since then, Harvick has made four more appearances as a title contender in the season finale. He has also won 11 of the 90 playoff races held going back to 2014, second only to Joey Logano who has 12 victories. Harvick’s excellence in the postseason was a key part of what made SHR a powerhouse in the 2010s.

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Yet in the last three years, there are signs that Harvick has lost some of his playoff mojo. In 2020, he entered the postseason with 57 playoff points, 10 more than his next closest competitor. Two more wins in the Round of 16 padded that total. But the Round of 12 turned into a nightmare scenario for Harvick. The No. 4 team narrowly missed out on a win at Kansas Speedway, running second to Logano. A week later, Harvick caught the wall at Texas Motor Speedway before NASCAR threw a caution for rain. The damage impacted the handling of Harvick’s car, leading to a disappointing 16th-place finish. The third race at Martinsville Speedway proved decisive when Harvick got out-pointed by Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin. Despite a nine-win season, Harvick was left out of the Championship 4 race.

The 2021 postseason did not work out any better for Harvick. The entire Stewart-Haas organization was well off the pace from its performance a year earlier, and the No. 4 was no exception. Harvick entered the playoffs at the bottom of the grid without a single victory. He nearly broke the drought at Bristol Motor Speedway in the first round, but a spat with Chase Elliott late in the race allowed Kyle Larson to slip away with the win.

Elliott’s interference infuriated Harvick. He retaliated against the No. 9 team three weeks later at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, punting Elliott into the wall heading out of the infield section. However, Elliott recovered well and came charging back through the field. He nearly caught back up to the No. 4 when the Harvick went too hard into turn 1 and slammed into the wall. The crash knocked him out of the race and out of the playoffs. It was the first time ever he was eliminated before the third round.

Last year’s postseason went even worse for Harvick. The No. 4 team was on the verge of missing the playoffs entirely until scoring back-to-back wins in August. Many thought that those wins, Harvick’s first since 2020, would give the No. 4 team some momentum into the postseason. Yet all it took was one race for things to come unraveled. Nearing the end of the Southern 500, Harvick’s car suddenly caught fire. There was no apparent damage or contact that caused the flames to erupt, leading to Harvick’s infamous quote about the Next Gen car’s “crappy ass parts.” A crash at Kansas the next week put Harvick in an even bigger hole, and a 10th-place run at Bristol resulted in a first-round elimination.

Nearly a year later, Harvick is back in the playoffs with little momentum on his side. He begins the postseason with four playoff points: three for finishing eighth in the regular season standings, plus one for a stage win. Only Bubba Wallace, the last driver to claim a playoff spot on Saturday night, will start with fewer. Harvick also remains winless since his two late summer victories a year ago. He was neck and neck with leader Chris Buescher while taking the white flag at Daytona, but Buescher got some timely help from teammate Brad Keselowski to seal the victory for the No. 17. Harvick lost his own drafting help coming out of turn 4 and slipped to ninth as he crossed the finish line. 

Even so, Harvick is the last man standing for Stewart-Haas when it comes to the championship. Aric Almirola finished a strong third place at Daytona, but it was too little too late for his postseason hopes. Chase Briscoe had a fast car and led a race-high 67 laps, but he and teammate Ryan Preece got taken out in a crash on lap 156. Preece’s car got airborne and flipped at least 10 times at an alarming rate of speed. He was thankfully awake and alert after the accident and taken to a local hospital. Preece was released from the hospital on Sunday and could be ready to race this weekend.

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Unless Almirola, Briscoe or Preece pull off a miracle win, Harvick is the only driver who can get something positive out of SHR’s disastrous season. He should have the full support of the organization behind him, both as the only playoff driver and because this will be his final playoff run. Given Stewart-Haas’ well-documented struggles in 2023, it’s hard to believe that the No. 4 team will be a championship contender this year.

However, Harvick is still the most experienced driver in the field and one of the masters of the elimination-style playoffs. Drivers of his caliber don’t forget what it takes to win races and rise to the occasion in pressure-packed situations. After a difficult regular season, Harvick and SHR have nothing more to lose. Perhaps they can recapture their old magic for one last playoff run together.      

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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