Kevin Harvick has always had a way about reminding folks he’s still a force to be reckoned with.
In a season where Harvick has been hanging around the periphery as Stewart-Haas Racing worked to adjust to life under the Ford banner, Harvick rose to the occasion Sunday afternoon at an opportune time. Winding up in Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway – where he had not won in 29 previous tries – means Harvick will be the familiar face in the Championship 4 picture, with his third appearance in four years.
Surprised? Don’t be. Nothing Harvick, a 17-year veteran of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, does anymore is a surprise. This is a driver whose nicknames are “The Closer” – because of his habit for late-race passes for the win – and “El Toro”.
What did stand out, and we should all be taking seriously, is the message from team co-owner Tony Stewart. The No. 4 team can smell blood in the water.
“I think what I saw tonight is something that I’m really encouraged about,” said Stewart. “It wasn’t just the fact of winning this race, but it’s just how it was won, how Kevin drove those last 20, 25 laps. I know Kevin and I can tell [from] watching his driving style, there’s something that field and those other three guys that are going to make it to Homestead here in a couple weeks… they’ve got something to be worried about.”
“I’ve seen this man when he gets locked in like this, and he’s strong right now.”
Stewart has always been good for a racing wake-up call.
Until Martinsville, where Harvick decided it was time for the gloves to come off (hence the El Toro side), he’s been going about his business in this year’s playoffs quieter than normal. Points were good enough for Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers to get through the first two rounds. But now they are showing they’ve got the right setups and the speed to match up well against their two known title foes in Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch.
Proving his Ford is just as powerful as the Toyota teams at a high-speed track, Harvick passed the king of the 1.5-mile tracks (Truex) on the outside in Turn 1 for the win, and then drove away for a margin of victory of 1.5s.
Such a performance was unlikely from this group just a few month ago, when Harvick had unflattering numbers in the 10 races after his win in late June at Sonoma; a period during which he led just 29 laps. But in eight playoff races, Harvick has been out front for 283 laps, grabbed three stage wins and now a race win.
The recent surge is a far cry from the talk coming from many inside the Ford camp during the summer about how their teams need to be faster. Eventually the magic was going to be found, and Harvick has never been one to just go away.
“I feel like over the last two months we have done a good job of not settling, making our cars better, going racing,” said Childers. “The hell with everybody else. We need to worry about ourselves. If we give him the right tools on the race track, he’s going to win races with it.”
Sunday was a reminder race all right. A reminder that whether you call Harvick “The Closer,” “El Toro” or something else, “legitimate championship contender” always works, too.