The start of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has a look of familiarity for driver Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford Fusion team at Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR). For the first time in several years, the season will kick off with the same race format, points system, manufacturer, primary partners and series sponsor from the previous season as the team heads to Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway for the season-opening Speedweeks.
The biggest changes for Harvick and the No. 4 team this year include an updated Jimmy John’s livery featuring a reversed color scheme with a white hood, black fenders and red highlights; new SHR teammate Aric Almirola driving the No. 10 Smithfield Ford Fusion; one fewer pit crewmember over the wall on pit stops; and a new NASCAR inspection process.
There is comfort in familiarity, which is good news for Harvick and the No. 4 team as Jimmy John’s returns for its third season on the hood of the No. 4 Ford for the 60th annual Daytona 500 on Feb. 18. Jimmy John’s, based in Champaign, Illinois and famous for its freaky fast delivery, made its Daytona 500 debut in 2016, when Harvick and the No. 4 team started ninth and finished fourth to start the season in “The Great American Race.”
While Jimmy John’s is on the hood for the Daytona 500, for the third consecutive year Busch Beer returns to Harvick’s No. 4 Ford Fusion at Daytona for Sunday’s Advanced Auto Parts Clash – the 75-lap, non-points-paying race that kicks off the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series season.
Busch’s rich racing history began in 1978, when the brand sponsored the award presented to Cup Series pole winners. Busch went on to be the “Official Beer of NASCAR” from 1988 through 1997 and was the title sponsor of the stepping-stone division to the Cup Series – currently known as the NASCAR Xfinity Series – from 1984 through 2007. The last Busch-sponsored driver prior to the company’s return in 2016 was NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough and his iconic No. 11 car during the 1980 season.
Both Jimmy John’s and Busch have reason to be optimistic as Harvick and the No. 4 team head to Daytona.
As Harvick enters his 18th NASCAR Cup Series season and his fifth at SHR with crew chief Rodney Childers at the helm, he is looking to score his second win in the Daytona 500. He won the famed Harley J. Earl trophy in 2007, when he beat Mark Martin to the Daytona 500 finish line by .020 of a second on the final green-white-checkered restart. It was the closest Daytona 500 finish since the inception of computer scoring in 2003. The race still stands as the second-closest finish in Daytona 500 history.
Harvick also has three wins in the Clash at Daytona – 2009, 2010 and 2013 – tying him for second-most with his team owner Tony Stewart and NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett.
In the 2009 Clash at Daytona, Harvick survived an incident-filled race that saw a record eight caution periods and less than half the starting field make it to the checkered flag.
The following year, he joined Neil Bonnett, Ken Schrader and Stewart as the fourth driver in event history to win consecutive races, and he did so driving a backup car he was never able to practice, passing Greg Biffle with two laps remaining in a green-white-checkered finish. NASCAR declared Harvick the winner when a multicar incident ended the race under caution.
In his 2013 win, Harvick led 40 of 75 laps, dominating the second and third segments en route to his third Clash at Daytona victory in five years.
If Harvick can add his name to the Harley J. Earl trophy for a second time Feb. 18 in the season-opening Daytona 500 at “The World Center of Racing,” he would be the 11th driver in NASCAR history to win the iconic event more than once. It would also put the No. 4 team in prime position to secure a berth in the 2018 playoffs as it attempts to win a second NASCAR Cup Series championship in four years.
KEVIN HARVICK, Driver of the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
SHR has two Daytona 500 winners on its roster. You are one of them. How satisfying is it to win that race?
“You always hear people talk about how winning the Daytona 500 is different than winning any other race. Once experiencing that, I would definitely say that it’s true just because everything you do at Speedweeks during the Daytona 500 weekend is just bigger and different than any other race you go to. So, winning our sport’s most prestigious race is pretty cool and something you would definitely like to experience again.”
Does winning one Daytona 500 make you even hungrier for another one?
“After experiencing everything that comes with the Daytona 500, yes. But, you know, you look back in time and see how hard it’s been to win that one particular race because you only get one shot a year. It’s a tough one to win. So I’m very fortunate to have been to victory lane in the Daytona 500, but would love to get back there.”
How helpful is it to come out of Daytona with a strong run?
“Winning the Daytona 500 almost makes your whole year, just for the fact that it is the Daytona 500 and the amount of notoriety and things that come with it for your team and organization are pretty high. I would not want to do it that way, but it is a race that can make your year. However, I think as far as racing for a championship, it’s much different in 2017 and in going forward than it has been in the past, because that hole can also be helped by stage points. Last year, we wrecked out of the Daytona 500 but led and won the first two stages, and I think we left (Daytona) fourth in the points. So, racing hard is definitely the strategy now to gain as many points as you can early in a race to try and protect yourself from the end. You want to carry momentum as early as you can in the season because it never hurts anything going to the next few races.”
A win for you in this year’s Daytona 500 would be a heck of a party with Busch beer bringing 500 fans to the Daytona 500. This is almost unprecedented activation by a NASCAR sponsor and you are at the center of it. What do you think of this?
“The activation and enthusiasm that Busch has brought back to the sport, a sport they’ve been in since the late ’70s and the activation and the marketing plan that they have brought to the No. 4 team and the sport in general, is something that has not been seen in years. For me, being a part of that is pretty cool because I know how much effort they put in and how good they want it to go. And to see them bring 500 fans to the Daytona 500 this year is something that’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s not like they’re just bringing them and giving them a ticket to the race. They’re giving them the VIP treatment, with paying for the flights, food, hotels, race tickets and a meet-and-greet – all the things that come with making the Daytona 500 weekend fun.”
You will have one fewer person servicing your racecar during pit stops this year. Instead of six crewmembers, you will have five. This is the same for everyone, but how do you think it will change the dynamic on pit road?
“I like change. I like things that are different. A few things were accomplished in the pit crew changes. Getting 40 people off pit road is going to help the bottom line with the race teams. I think the pit stops were in the 10-second range, and I think slowing them down a little bit and keeping those cars on pit road and having a little bit longer pit stop isn’t going to hurt anything. The amount of money we were spending on the pit guns, the R&D and things wasn’t exactly fair for all the teams up and down pit road, so the spec gun is a good change. I’m excited about pit road. When I first started Cup racing, the pit stops were 22 seconds long. If I have to sit there for 12 or 13 seconds, I’m probably still going to think it’s really fast.”
If there is a slow pit stop, are you a little bit more understanding knowing how much your guys now have to multitask during a stop?
As you go through the early part of the season, I think you have to have some patience with pit road because you know how new, fresh and different it is through those first few races. I mean, we’ve all practiced this, but nobody’s practiced it with cars going everywhere, and in the heat of the moment. So it’s definitely something you’re going to have to have some patience with. But, as we get toward the end of the year, they should have it figured out, and it’ll probably just be the new norm.”