Kevin Harvick’s 2016 stat book includes four wins, more than 1,300 laps led and an average finish inside the top 10, something no other Premier Series (now Monster Energy NASCAR Cup) driver can boast. He was the best driver in the Stewart-Haas Racing stable last year, competitive and consistent. Yet the season, one in which he earned more points than any other driver (with no Chase reset), became a question of “coulda, woulda, shoulda...”
Harvick won at Phoenix in the spring, something that has become almost inevitable as he has dominated there in recent years. He won at Bristol in the heat of summer. He won twice in the Chase, at Loudon and Kansas. But he had a 20th-place finish at Martinsville in October to open the Round of 8, and even with top 10s the next two weeks, he couldn’t quite fight his way out of the corner even at Phoenix. For the first time since NASCAR introduced the elimination-style Chase, Harvick was out before the final round.
It could be a bumpy road back to the top for the 2014 champ. Harvick is obviously a capable driver, but at 41, he doesn’t have forever stretching out in front of him anymore. The past three years, in some ways, could feel like missed opportunities: He’s got the most laps led during that stretch of any driver in 20 years, yet he has only 12 victories and one title to show for it. By comparison, other top drivers like Jeff Gordon and Richard Petty have won 13 races in a single season at their peak.
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The biggest challenge will come with his racecar. Harvick has never driven anything but a Chevrolet in NASCAR’s Premier Series, and this year, he’ll wheel a Ford as SHR makes the change to a new manufacturer. The switch will be more difficult for the teams than drivers in terms of day-to-day differences, and it will mean new engineers, new engine builders from Roush Yates and new relationships.
From a technical standpoint, the question isn’t about Ford’s speed — Team Penske contended for the 2016 title in Fords. Roush Yates power is among the strongest and most durable in the garage, although there are potential durability concerns. Will four additional teams leave them overloaded?
At least Tony Stewart’s retirement and his replacement, Clint Bowyer, should have little impact at the No. 4 team. Harvick and Bowyer have been teammates at Richard Childress Racing, so they have some idea of each other’s styles of driving and communication.
As for his team, Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers are one of the top pairs in the garage in terms of communication and execution. There’s no question that the two will be formidable. There have been questions about performance on pit road, and there have been mistakes in the last couple of years that have hurt Harvick on the track, even with a couple of changes. The driver hasn’t been shy in voicing his displeasure.
Is Harvick, then, part of the problem? There are two ways a driver can react to a pit error — he can explode at his team, or he can overcome it on the track. Many drivers do both, and Harvick is one of those drivers. But people specifically trying not to make mistakes often make them. People have emotions, and public criticism can hurt their confidence long term. Harvick needs to find a way to keep his team running hungry.
Anheuser-Busch returns to the No. 4 team with the Busch Beer brand and will split most of the season with Jimmy John’s sandwich shops. Sponsors want to back a winner, and Harvick delivers. He also has a strong relationship with Stewart, and that will continue as Stewart assumes an ownership-only role in the team this year.
Overall, Harvick has everything he needs to win a second title this year. The hard part is, so do a lot of other drivers. Everything will have to go right for Harvick to put together a title-winning package in his first year at Ford.