It was a toasty November afternoon under the Arizona sun, and the NASCAR Cup Series was at Phoenix Raceway to crown a champion and to close out its 2023 season.
It was Ryan Blaney who took home the series’ most prestigious hardware after a second-place finish to Ross Chastain, but there was another story just a handful of positions behind them, as nine-time Phoenix winner and 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick crossed the line seventh to close the final chapter of his NASCAR career.
The race was the 826th start of Harvick’s Cup tenure, and in a journey spanning 23 seasons, he scored 60 wins, 251 top fives, 444 top 10s and the 2014 title in a career that will undoubtedly make him a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer.
But when Harvick first burst onto the Cup scene in 2001, he wasn’t Kevin Harvick; he was the California kid who had to fill the shoes of one of the sport’s greatest drivers.
Harvick won three NASCAR Xfinity Series races for Richard Childress Racing in 2000, and the plan was for him to go full-time Cup racing in 2002 after a part-time schedule in the team’s No. 30 car for 2001. But after Dale Earnhardt’s death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Harvick was the one that took over the team’s newly renumbered No. 29.
Harvick made his Cup debut the following week at Rockingham Speedway, and he was immediately thrust into the spotlight. But it only took a handful of races for Harvick to permanently cement himself as a part of NASCAR lore.
In the 2001 Cracker Barrell 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Harvick took the lead with six laps to go and beat Jeff Gordon to the finish line by .006 seconds to claim the first win of his Cup career.
Between Darrell Waltrip’s dramatic “Harvick by inches!” call, Harvick’s three-finger salute out the window and the photo finish that came one year after Earnhardt’s nail-biting win over Bobby Labonte at Atlanta in 2000, Harvick endeared himself to millions of fans in what proved to be one of NASCAR’s most famous and emotional moments.
Harvick added a second win in the inaugural Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway in July, and he wrapped up the year by clinching the 2001 Xfinity championship for RCR in November.
Through his first six Cup seasons, Harvick scored 10 wins, which included a 2003 Brickyard 400 crown and a five-win 2006 season. But it was on Feb. 18, 2007, where Harvick captured the biggest win of his RCR tenure.
The 2007 triumph proved to be his lone victory in the Great American Race, but it was after this win and a handful of to-the-wire victories from 2010 and 2011 that Harvick acquired the most recognizable nickname of his career: The Closer.
He made last lap passes in the trioval at both Daytona in 2007 and at Talladega Superspeedway in 2010. In 2011, he passed Jimmie Johnson on the final lap to win at his home track, Auto Club Speedway. He made the pass for the win with six laps to go the following week at Martinsville Speedway, and he made a last lap pass a few months later to win the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 after Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of fuel.
These wins established Harvick as a driver that one could never count until the checkered flag waved. The wins were also a part of the most successful stretch of Harvick’s RCR tenure, as he scored 13 wins between 2010 and 2013.
But Harvick’s 13-year ride in the No. 29 car had come to a close, as he signed a deal before the 2013 season to drive Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 4 car for 2014 and beyond.
And when the 2014 season arrived, he was shot out of a cannon.
Paired with crew chief Rodney Childers, it only took two races for Harvick to score the first win of his SHR tenure at Phoenix. The duo scored five wins and the 2014 title in their first season together, and Harvick led more laps in his first two seasons at SHR than he did in his first 13 seasons at RCR combined.
While 2014 proved to be the only title of Harvick’s career, he had established himself as one of the most formidable drivers in the 2010s and early 2020s. He scored 35 wins and led at least 850 laps a year in his first eight seasons at SHR, which included an eight-win season in 2018 and a nine in 2020.
Harvick only continued to get better with age, as he scored 46 of his 60 wins after turning 35 years old and 29 of his 60 after turning 40. His nine wins in 2020 mark the most for a driver at age 44 or older in a season, and he won 25 races after SHR’s switch to Ford in 2017.
In the end, 2020 proved to be the last year that Harvick, Childers and SHR were a powerhouse. Despite scoring 24 top 10s and finishing fifth in points, 2021 proved to be Harvick’s first winless season since 2009. He turned back the clock in the summer of 2022, as he ended a 65-race drought at Michigan International Speedway before scoring a second win at Richmond Raceway the following week.
2023 was announced as Harvick’s final season in January, and while he was unable to score a win in his farewell tour, he came close on a variety of occasions.
In March, Harvick had a five-second lead at Phoenix until a caution came out with eight laps to go; he pitted for four tires and finished fifth. In the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in September, Harvick was running second with under 60 to go until a closed pit road penalty relegated him to tail end of the lead lap. And at Talladega in October, he swapped the lead back and forth with Blaney in the closing laps but lost in a photo finish until a disqualification wiped the result off the board.
In the final race of his career at Phoenix, Harvick started third, led 23 laps and looked to have one of the best long-run cars early on before fading to seventh by the end. While it wasn’t a win, Harvick showed that he was still competitive as he stepped away from the sport at age 47.
Harvick had a tremendous impact on NASCAR as a driver, and that is shown with all the tributes that poured in for his final season. The tributes ranged from gifts, tracks renaming turn 4 to Harvick 4, running side-by-side with his winning 2001 Atlanta car on the pace laps and even Mobil 1 renaming the Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway to the 4EVER 400.
And the void that Harvick leaves in 2024 will be difficult to fill. His 60 wins rank 10th all time, and he’s the third-most-winningest driver to have debuted after 2000, behind Kyle Busch (63) and Johnson (83). Harvick was also the last full-time driver to have competed in the early 2000s, and he was the only full-timer who had competed before the introduction of the playoff system in 2004.
Harvick also ends his career with 784 consecutive Cup starts, good enough for third all-time after Ricky Rudd (788) and Jeff Gordon (797); a one-race suspension at Martinsville in April 2002 proved to be the only thing separating Harvick from a record 827 consecutive starts.
In his retirement, Harvick will FOX’s NASCAR coverage as a color commentator for the 2024 season after serving as a commentator for select Xfinity and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races between 2015 and 2023.
Outside of his future broadcast work for FOX, Harvick has been actively involved in supporting the racing careers of his 11-year-old son Keelan and his 6-year-old daughter Piper. He is also a co-owner of the CARS Tour, and he previously was a team owner in NASCAR, as Kevin Harvick, Inc. scored 10 Xfinity wins, 43 Truck wins and two Truck championships between 2001 and 2011.
Harvick’s career behind the steering wheel may be over, but he has turned a new page in his NASCAR journey.
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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