He'll be the oldest full-time driver in the NASCAR Cup Series when the 2021 season opens. At 45, he's at an age where most drivers at his level are thinking about retirement. But to Kevin Harvick, age is just a number.
To say Harvick's 2020 season was a good one is an understatement. His nine-win campaign, during which he posted an eye-popping 27 top-10 finishes, over 1,500 laps led, and an average finish of 7.3, ranks as one of the best campaigns in NASCAR's modern era. Perhaps the most remarkable feat in Harvick's remarkable 2020 is that, over 36 races, he failed to complete only three laps. That's 99.97 percent of all laps in all races. By comparison, Cup champion Chase Elliott finished just over 96 percent of laps; that's considered a very successful number by any standard.
Harvick's monster season illustrates how hard it is to win a title in today's NASCAR. Harvick was eliminated before the final round of the playoffs, finishing fifth overall in points. He finished out of the top 10 two weeks in a row only three times in 2020, but one of those times was the final two races of the Round of 8, where he finished 16th at Texas and 17th at Martinsville, and that was enough to eliminate him.
That's how tough the competition is, and it's why a good season is no longer good enough. And ironically enough, Harvick's fantastic 2020 might just present his biggest question mark headed into 2021.
Nothing will change for Harvick this year. He's still the top driver in Stewart-Haas Racing's stacked stable. He'll have a new teammate in youngster Chase Briscoe, but Harvick will remain with crew chief Rodney Childers, and this pair is one of the most successful driver-crew chief combinations in recent history. They've shone since they were paired up at SHR, winning the 2014 title out of the box, but they've really just gotten better from there. In their seven years together, Harvick has amassed 35 of his 58 career victories and finished fifth or better in points six times. Childers listens to Harvick, and he puts cars under him that are capable of winning and makes them better throughout races. He tempers Harvick's aggression enough that Harvick has become a smarter, more cerebral driver.
Team owner Tony Stewart and Harvick are longtime friends, but Stewart's choice of driver was also a great business decision. Harvick has brought SHR perennial success. He has attracted and kept good backing; to date most of his sponsors have already committed for 2021. His wins certainly put sponsors in the spotlight, and he works well with them, particularly with Anheuser-Busch, which has run several special paint schemes that have been well received by fans.
So, why the question mark after a season for the history books? The little stumble late in the playoffs aside, it's fair to ask how long one team can keep up such a torrid pace.
And then there's his age. Harvick's best years have come as he's gotten older, but at some point, a driver's performance drops off. On Harvick's side is the postponement of the Next Generation Cup car — it's often the evolution of cars that spells the end of a driver's time as he struggles to adapt to something different than what he's known. Changes in the car, not a drop-off in skill, were Jimmie Johnson's downfall late in his career. While it's true that reflexes will eventually slow and reaction time in a situation will not always be what it once was, Harvick has made up for any shortcomings with the wealth of knowledge he's built. So far he's shown no signs of slowing down.
How long can Harvick be a title favorite? He's certainly one in 2021. Beyond that? Maybe age is just another number.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 5/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)