Kevin Harvick is heading into the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway as a member of the Championship 4 for the third time in the last four years. And 2017 has similarities to 2014, when Harvick won the title in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).
Just as Harvick started from scratch in 2014 with a brand new race team at SHR after spending his 13 previous seasons with Richard Childress Racing, he started from scratch in 2017 after SHR switched to Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford Motor Company.
Instead of assembling team members, pit boxes and equipment the way it did in 2014, SHR had to start building its own chassis while learning new tools and programs to familiarize itself with a different racecar and the Ford FR9 EFI powerplant built by Roush Yates Engines.
The No. 4 Jimmy John’s team got off to a fast start in just the second race of the season at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where it displayed a dominant performance that made the transition to Ford look easy. Harvick led four times for a race-high 292 of 325 laps, but a late-race miscue resulted in a ninth-place finish. Juxtapose that run with the one Harvick put forth in the second race of 2014 at Phoenix Raceway, where he led four times a race-high 224 of 312 laps and scored his first victory as a member of SHR.
In 2017, the team experienced teething issues through most of the month of March before recording its first top-five finish of the season April 9 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. In 2014, the No. 4 team also overcame an early season struggle during which it finished 36th or worse in four of five races from Las Vegas Motor Speedway to Texas before hitting its stride in April with a win in the prestigious Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
As the NASCAR playoffs got underway in 2017, Harvick and the No. 4 team kicked off the effort with a third-place finish at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois. The result at Chicagoland inspired confidence in the No. 4 team that it could indeed compete for the 2017 title.
Since the start of the 2017 playoffs, Harvick has scored a series-best 212 points at 1.5-mile racetracks with one win and an average finish of 3.8. He beat Martin Truex Jr. in the most recent 1.5-mile race Nov. 5 at Texas to secure his position in the Championship 4.
In 2014, the No. 4 Jimmy John’s team also had the ability to peak when it mattered most. In the final three races of the 2014 season, Harvick scored a second-place finish at Texas before winning the final two races of the season at Phoenix and Homestead.
While Harvick and the No. 4 team are unable to match the number of wins and laps led from their 2014 effort, their 13 top-five finishes is one short of their 2014 total, and their 22 top-five finishes is two better than what they earned in 2014.
Augmenting those numbers are the ones Harvick has put up at Homestead since joining SHR. He has one win, one pole and three top-three finishes with series bests of 124 points earned, 179 laps led and an average finish of 2.0.
If Harvick and the No. 4 team can claim the top prize Sunday night in the Ford EcoBoost 400, they would be the first to do so with a new manufacturer since Cale Yarborough did it driving the No. 11 Busch Beer machine in 1978. Harvick is also attempting to claim Ford’s first NASCAR Cup Series championship since SHR teammate Kurt Busch hoisted the Cup in 2004 while a member of Roush Fenway Racing.
What makes Harvick’s history in the playoffs even more impressive is his series-best seven wins in NASCAR Cup Series playoff races since 2014. No team and driver have performed better in must-win situations since 2014, and this Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 is the ultimate must-win situation with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title on the line.
KEVIN HARVICK, Driver of the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What does it mean to move on to the Championship 4 with a chance to win another title?
“It means a lot, especially this year switching everything to Ford and just seeing the steady climb of performance and peaking as the playoffs started and running well on really every racetrack that we’ve been to. And this has been, by far, our best round – all three top-fives with a win. It’s the right time of the year to be peaking. I feel really good about our mile-and-a-half program. Homestead has been a great racetrack for us through the years and, hopefully, we can go down there and contend. I think, for us, you’re really happy with where you are just for the fact that as a company we know what we went through and we’re kind of playing with house money at this point. So we’re gonna go down there and wing it and see what happens.”
Team owner Tony Stewart said earlier that he’s seen this script before with you, and you’re going to go down to Homestead and win. What do you think?
“Our intention is to go down there and win the championship. I think if you’re one of those four and you don’t have that mentality, you’re not prepared for what you’re getting into because I feel like you’re gonna have to win the race, you’re gonna have to not make mistakes. We’ve seen it year after year – mistakes and circumstances and things happen and you have to be there first, you have to have a chance, and you have to think you can do it. We know we can do it and I think there are three past champions and a guy who has run well all year and won a lot of races, so it’s not like it’s gonna be just check the box and send the check. It’s guys who have done this before and won races. But, for us, we’re confident in our team and feel like we should have a chance.”
With you being joined by Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Brad Keselowski, is this the strongest Championship 4 in regard to mental toughness?
“I wouldn’t say it’s the strongest because I think, as you look at the past, and if I’m not mistaken, I know the 78 (Truex) has been there before, the 18 (Kyle Busch) has been there before, obviously. I don’t know if Brad (Keselowski) has been there before or not in this particular format, but it’s not something that these guys are just gonna cave in and give up on what they’re doing. Three of us have won championships, and Martin has won a lot of races this year, so the pressure is really on the 78 and the 18. Those guys have dominated the year, and I feel like if they don’t win at this point, they would probably feel like they’ve had a letdown. So it’s a lot of fun coming from behind and playing catch-up. And kind of playing that underdog role is much easier than being expected to go down there and win. We expect to win.”