Kevin Harvick is heading to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway for the First Data 500 for the first of three races of the Round of 8 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. He will have a crisp, cold new look with Busch NA on the hood of his No. 4 Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).
Busch Beer’s non-alcoholic branding shows Busch’s commitment to promoting the responsible enjoyment of Busch products and encourages smart-drinking choices. Race fans attending Martinsville Speedway for the First Data 500 can enjoy Busch NA and other Busch family products at the midway and from select vendors throughout the track.
Harvick advanced to the Round of 8 following an eighth-place finish last Sunday at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City. The good news for Harvick is that his second-place qualifying effort at Kansas will carry over to Martinsville and allow the No. 4 team to claim a coveted, prime pit stall for this weekend during the enhanced, two-day format.
The .526-mile paperclip-shaped racetrack is the shortest on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit while its low banking and tight corners provide some of the closest and toughest competition on the schedule.
Due to the tight quarters, a racecar rarely finishes a race at Martinsville without a tire mark on the door or a few dents in the sheet metal.
What makes it maddening for competitors is that they can race to the front of the field and stay there throughout the majority of the event, only to get shuffled back on a late-race restart if they wind up in the outside lane.
Harvick and the No. 4 team suffered that very fate at Martinsville in April 2016, when he started 19th, raced to the front and led 72 laps before being stuck in the outside lane on consecutive late-race restarts, ultimately finishing 17th.
But the madness of Martinsville can work to a driver’s benefit, as well. Harvick found that out in April 2011, when he started ninth, led just six of 500 laps and beat runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the finish line by .727 of a second.
Martinsville is one of only three Cup Series venues where Harvick has yet to score a top-five finish since joining SHR in 2014 – Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and Kentucky Speedway in Sparta are the other two. He may be looking for his first top-five at Martinsville since joining SHR, but he has shown speed and consistency at the Virginia short track with three top-10 finishes and 265 laps led in his seven Martinsville appearances since the start of 2014.
One of the most important things to watch for this weekend at Martinsville will be stage points, which can be scored early in the race. Harvick scored 41 stage points and two playoff points in the Round of 12 to help offset a 20th-place result at Talladega.
Martin Truex Jr. of Furniture Row Racing, the current points leader entering the Round of 8, holds a 52-point advantage over Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, who are tied for fifth in the standings. Kyle Busch has a 25-point cushion over the fifth position, and Brad Keselowski has a nine-point advantage.
While Harvick has raced up front and scored five stage wins this year, he is still in search of his first Cup Series race win at an oval track this season. A win this weekend at Martinsville would secure his position in the winner-take-all, Championship 4 round at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway and give him a shot at his second Cup Series championship.
KEVIN HARVICK, Driver of the No. 4 Busch NA Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Where do you want to be at Martinsville to help you avoid trouble on the racetrack?
“I think the best position to be in at any racetrack is in the lead. You want to be in control of the race and try to get yourself in a position to where you can have a good, clean restart and have as much clear track, especially at Martinsville, just for the fact that there is so much pushing and shoving on the restarts to get to the bottom lane that you want to try to be as far forward as possible.”
What do you expect to see in the transition from Talladega to Martinsville?
“Well, I think everybody is unhappy at this particular stage of the year because the intensity level is so high. You know that, whether that moment was good or bad, it could have been the moment you could win or lose the championship from. You see that intensity with a lot of guys. I think right now you just have to approach it as, whatever you have to do to get the best finish for your team, is what you have to do at this particular point. The goal is to get to Homestead and we have three races to do that.”
With rain in the forecast for Sunday, how will that change things up?
“It’s a very complicated weekend looking at all the different scenarios that you have going on, because last week in qualifying also set your pit stall selection for this weekend at Martinsville. So our qualifying from last week at Kansas has already set the pit stall selection process for this week. Now you’re going to go up there and try to qualify well, which you always try to do, especially at Martinsville. But now we are looking at the possibility of rain on Sunday morning. Usually when there is rain at Martinsville, we just figure we’ll go up there and race on Monday, but now they have lights. So, if it does get delayed, we may have to run at night. The biggest issue with that is, all of our practice will be run on Saturday. So we’ll get up there late morning on Saturday and run our first practice. Trucks will have been on the track on Friday. It’s going to be a cool weekend up there, which typically means that the track won’t have a lot of rubber on it because the track won’t take a lot of rubber if it’s cold. We tested there a few weeks ago and it was a little warmer and there was rubber everywhere. There is a lot to digest on Saturday and Martinsville is a pretty finicky racetrack when it comes to temperature and rubber on the racetrack. If it does rain on Sunday morning and you don’t get to qualify, that’s not the biggest deal. The biggest deal will be how long does it rain and are you going to race at night. We’ve all never made one lap at night. You don’t really know what to expect. There might be some guys who have run Late Models there, but they’ve never raced there at night, either. It’s very interesting that this all comes at this particular point in the year. You just have to try and take everything in and balance it all as best you can.”