Race Weekend Central

Dropping the Hammer: Kevin Harvick & the First Big ‘What If?” of Playoffs


Race by race.


Stage by stage.


Lap by lap.


Kevin Harvick is running out of time.

The final NASCAR Cup Series campaign of the future Hall of Famer’s career has entered its twilight.

The weight of that reality has been hard to ignore the last two weekends, as Harvick was within tangible reach of finally claiming wins in his farewell season.

Harvick had navigated his No. 4 car to the front and led the final 12 laps of regulation in the regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway. Unfortunately, the terrifying Ryan Preece accident sent the race to overtime and Chris Buescher walked away with the win.

Then came Darlington Raceway and the first big “what if?” of the playoffs.

If there was any track in the final 10 races of the season where Harvick could be expected to get one last win and also advance in the playoffs, Darlington was arguably No. 2 on that list.

For much of Sunday (Sept. 3) night’s race, Harvick was in the top 10, picking up spots on pit road or remaining neutral all night and not getting mentioned.

That was until stage 3, when he assumed second place and began pressuring Tyler Reddick for the lead.

That lasted until lap 311, when Harvick was called to pit road by his team a lap earlier than expected in an attempt to possibly jump Reddick for the lead.

That came undone within a few ticks of the clock.

“Pit this time, pit this time, pit this time. The 4 should be coming with us,” Reddick was rapidly told right after Harvick peeled off the track and onto the apron in turn 3.

However, that message was relayed to Reddick after he was well past the point of no return of making it to the commitment line. As Reddick slowed, the car behind him — driven by Ryan Newman — checked up and spun, forcing the caution to come out.

Unfortunately for Harvick, his point of no return had already come to.

He drove onto pit road, and, not knowing if he had beaten the caution light or not, the team decided to pit, as his crew chief Rodney Childers later explained on Twitter.

“Unbelievable, there was no way to turn back out,” Harvick told his team after it happened.

After being penalized for pitting after pit road had closed, Harvick’s shot was over. He finished his final Southern 500 in 19th.

Sure, there was another “What if?” Sunday night.

Denny Hamlin looked like he was going to cruise to his fourth Southern 500 win, leading 177 laps.

Then an apparent vibration after a pit stop forced him to bring the No. 11 Toyota back to pit road.

Getting caught up in a five-car wreck later on helped relegate Hamlin to a 25th-place finish.

Why Harvick’s “What if?” is bigger is simple.

Hamlin has more stage points — 27 — and is racing beyond 2023.

Harvick entered and exited the Southern 500 with only four playoff points, the fewest among drivers who had earned any throughout the regular season.

He now sits two points below the cutoff spot heading to Kansas Speedway, a track he’s won at three times but not since 2018. Then there’s Bristol Motor Speedway, where Harvick also has three wins and has placed in the top two in two of the last three night races.

But nothing is guaranteed, especially in a soon-to-be Hall of Famer’s farewell season.

Tony Stewart‘s final Cup win in 2016 at Sonoma Raceway only happened because Hamlin overshot the final turn, giving the lead back to Stewart.

A year earlier, it could be argued Jeff Gordon‘s final triumph at Martinsville Speedway only came to pass because Matt Kenseth‘s grudge against Joey Logano.

They were fortunate.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson went winless in their final two and three Cup seasons, respectively.

But Harvick still has time. Just not much.

And at least there’s Phoenix Raceway waiting at the end of the season and Harvick’s career. In the spring, Harvick looked like he was going to run away with his track-record 10th career win there.

Then, Harrison Burton spun and brought out a caution nine laps from the end of regulation.

William Byron left the desert with the trophy.

Of his predicament heading into the last two races of the first round and the last nine races of his career, Harvick didn’t have much to say Sunday night, according to a team release.

“The caution came out and the light was on, and I didn’t think I could turn right,” Harvick said. “We’ll just go and put the gas pedal down and do the exact same thing we’ve done for 23 years.”

2023 is Daniel McFadin’s 10th year covering NASCAR, with six years spent at NBC Sports. This is his third year writing columns for Frontstretch. His columns won third place in the National Motorsports Press Association awards for 2021. His work can be found at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and SpeedSport.com. 

The podcast version of “Dropping the Hammer” is presented by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

About the author

Daniel McFadin is a 10-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He currently works full time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is lead reporter and an editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR podcast "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" presented by Democrat-Gazette.

You can email him at danielmcfadin@gmail.com.

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Kevin in SoCal

Harvick’s statement saying he knew the light was on contradicts Childer’s statement that he thought he might have made the light. As a Harvick fan, it hurts to see.

Ronald Thornton

I left my opinion on another page, but Harvick got screwed. Plain and simple, Harvick had no chance of getting back on track. Of course, harvicks team didn’t have to continue with the stop, but nascar should have a common sense “Board of Commisioners.” Dale Jarrett, Kyle Petty, Earnheardt Jr, Burton and alot of other former drivers would be a good start for information. My God, they can’t make a 90°turn at the end of put road. Yes, he could drive through but these are instantaneous decisions in 120°heat on the fly. Damn.
Nascar should put a few more former drivers in the rules commitee or at least in the final call committee. Don’t get me started on the timing or need for some of these cautions. That caution was VERY quick. They leave cars in the middle of track sometimes, but this time the guy with his finger on the button was on the spot. Just be consistent. Just be consistent. Just be consistent.

Ronald Thornton

Just be consistent. Just be consistent. Just be consistent. Just be consistent…….

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