Kevin Harvick didn’t have the best car at Darlington and he still kicked off the NASCAR playoffs with a victory.
That’s a scary thought for Harvick’s fellow competitors for the 2020 Cup Series championship.
In nearly every one of Harvick’s seven wins in the regular season, he and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team ran up front a good deal of the race and many times simply overpowered its competition.
Sunday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway was different, however.
It became clear in the early-going Harvick’s No. 4 Ford didn’t have the race-winning speed to match Martin Truex Jr. or Chase Elliott.
Harvick did have a backup plan – a change-up in pit strategy initiated by crew chief Rodney Childers that put Harvick up front and in position to capitalize when Truex and Elliott took each other out racing for the lead late in the race.
Harvick inherited the lead with 12 of 367 laps remaining and held off a spirited charge from Austin Dillon to secure the win and lock himself into the Round of 12.
“It was a battle. It wasn’t necessarily pretty,” Harvick said. “But everybody on our team did a great job keeping us in the race. Rodney had great strategy. Our car was extremely loose all night, and we were able to manage to get it better but never really got it going as good as we’d like to.
“But they battled, and we kept ourselves in the right spot. The leaders got tangled up and we were in position to capitalize on that.”
The victory in a race Harvick wasn’t likely to win provided a litany of extra benefits.
He picked up five more playoff points he wasn’t expecting; two of his top competitors for the title were denied the chance at those points; and he now has a “free pass” the next two races to throw caution to the wind in the effort to collect even more playoff points without worrying about advancing to the next round.
“We knew we had done a great job in the regular season and had built a buffer. Just like you saw Rodney call this race, I think there were several moments where we could have been a lap down and he called this race to win,” Harvick said.
“I think he knows the importance of winning races. He also knows the importance of that cushion that’s sitting there. But the best way up is to have that cushion get bigger, and we were able to do that.
“That’s just the great spot that we’re in that we can continue to be aggressive and make aggressive calls and do aggressive things to try to win.”
Ahead of the pack
Entering the playoffs, Harvick and Denny Hamlin – and in some ways Brad Keselowski – had already separated themselves from the rest of the 16-driver field by virtue of their performance.
In the opening playoff race, Hamlin took himself out of contention for a win with an on-track mistake (missing the entrance to pit road on a green-flag stop) and Truex and Elliott took each other out racing for the win.
Harvick was already a favorite to be one of the final four competing for the title at Phoenix in November but nobody could have envisioned his competition assisting in clearing his path through the playoffs.
Why is that a scary thought for his fellow competitors?
Because the Kevin Harvick that won seven races in the regular season and dominated many of them in doing so hasn’t even shown up yet.
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