Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Busch Beer Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), is heading to Dover (Del.) International Speedway for this Sunday’s Apache Warrior 400 looking to survive the Round of 16 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
Harvick entered the 2017 playoffs as the sixth seed, but a solid third-place performance at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois, which featured runner-up finishes in the first and second stages for an additional 18 points, moved the No. 4 team up to third in the standings, 41 points above the cutoff position of 13th with two races remaining in the Round of 16.
However, a 36th-place finish last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon dropped the No. 4 team to 10th in the standings with only a 25-point buffer to the final transfer position into the Round of 12.
Harvick has been in a challenging position at this point in the season before and came out on top.
In October 2015, Harvick arrived at Dover ranked 15th in points and trailing Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 23 points for the final transfer position into the Round of 12. A solid finish at the Monster Mile wouldn’t do – he needed a win to advance. With everything on the line, he delivered the most dominant race of his NASCAR Cup Series career. He started 15th after rain cancelled qualifying Friday afternoon, but he quickly raced his way to the front and led 355 of 400 laps to beat runner-up Kyle Busch to the finish line by 2.639 seconds.
According to NASCAR Stats and Information, he registered a 149.7 driver rating out of a possible 150.0, narrowly missing his fourth perfect driver rating in a Cup Series race. He previously registered perfect 150.0 driver ratings at Phoenix International Raceway on three occasions – November 2006 and 2014, and March 2015.
The 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion has been fast at Dover since joining SHR at the beginning of 2014, scoring one win, one pole and two top-five finishes. What is more impressive is that he has led 810 of 2,811 laps in seven races there – 28.8 percent of the total laps raced since the beginning of 2014.
However, luck has not always been on the side of the No. 4 team at Dover.
In June 2014, Harvick started eighth, led 24 laps, but finished 17th as the first car one lap down after he had a valve stem issue during a pit stop that caused a tire to go down on the following restart.
He won the pole at Dover in September 2014, when he turned a lap of 22.095 seconds at162.933 mph in the second round of qualifying. On race day, he stayed at the front of the field for 223 laps but had to settle for a 13th-place finish after another valve stem issue led to a flat tire following a pit stop and caused him to fall a lap down to the leaders.
Harvick started from the pole after qualifying was rained out in May 2016. He led 117 laps early in the race before he was caught in an 18-car accident and finished one lap down in 15th.
In October 2016, the No. 4 team started sixth before an issue with the trackbar resulted in the team spending 43 laps making repairs, and a 37th-place result was all he could muster.
While Harvick is not in a must-win situation at Dover, he will race aggressively and try to score stage wins and a trip to victory lane to shift momentum in a positive direction heading into the Round of 12.
KEVIN HARVICK, Driver of the No. 4 Busch Beer Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You are not in a must-win situation, but you still need to survive Dover to advance.
“Yeah, we’re not in a must-win situation, which is great, but I’ve been to Dover in that situation before. For whatever reason, the first round has always thrown us some kind of curveball the last couple of years. In the last two years, I think we’ve finished 38th and 20th at Chicago and then we went to Loudon and had to win last year before going to Dover, where we broke a trackbar. The first round has been a real doozie for us the last few years.”
How do you approach your game plan for the Dover weekend?
“I think we want to race aggressively and do all the things that we’ve done all year. We aren’t one of the two guys tied zero points behind, and one guy one point behind and a couple guys trying to race hard to get a win to advance. We aren’t in a comfortable position, but having 25 points as a cushion is better than some of the other guys, for sure. I think you want to go up there and race as hard as you can and obviously race smart. But, I’ve been there and everybody races into the first turn and it wrecks 15 cars, so you never know. I think, for us, we’ve been in this position before and you go out and do the same things that you’ve done every week to get your car as good as you can in practice, make good decisions and get the best finish out of the weekend that you can.”
Is there a different level of pressure this year since the playoffs have changed a little this year?
“No. I think, as you look at when the Chase started and now what has evolved into the playoffs, in 2014 the pressure changed. That pressure is not like the pressure you used to have in the Chase. The playoff pressure is so much different than having 10 weeks, because now you have three weeks to make it happen. It’s just like last week, we had an accident and put ourselves behind, but that ramps the pressure up to make sure you go out the third week where it’s really all about survive and advance. That’s really what the mentality is. If you’re not winning, or you are not running well – it doesn’t matter. Whatever the round is this time – it’s the Round of 16 – just survive the Round of 16, get it back to the reset and start the next three weeks again. The pressure is much more intense than it was over 10 weeks because it’s all happening every week. You know you have a very short window to make it happen in those three weeks. It is definitely a different pressure and I think being able to have lived it in the past with things happening, having your back against the wall and winning a championship – we’ve been through a lot of these situations and hopefully we can handle them again.”
What is your mindset heading into Dover? Do you feel that a mistake or a wreck in one race can sink your season?
“It’s just more tense this time of year. Take us, for example. We went to Chicago and scored good stage points in both stages and you have a solid finish. Then you go to New Hampshire and the car is a little bit off, score one point in the first stage and then wreck in the second stage. Luckily, we had a little bit of a buffer there from the regular-season points and we have an OK cushion. That lets you breathe a little easier than being one out or zero.”