Kevin Harvick has been a constant threat to win the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup series championship during his seven-year stint while driving for Stewart-Haas Racing. He won the series title in 2014, finished runnerup in 2015 and took third place the last three years.
Harvick, 44, and NASCAR return to competition Sunday with the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Speedway. The series has been sidelined since the March 8 race at Phoenix due to COVID-19.
Sunday’s race will be unique in many ways – beyond the fact that NASCAR is the first mainstream American-based sport to restart.
►There will be no practice or qualifying. The lineup was set by random draw and Brad Keselowski is on the pole.
►The field will be frozen for a competition caution on Lap 30 and only the top 20 cars will be allowed to pit. The remaining cars will pit on the next lap.
►There will be no fans.
Harvick, who drew the No. 6 spot, thinks things could be interesting early, since there is no practice.
“It will be little tricky adjusting on your car at the beginning, just because of the lack of rubber on the race track,” Harvick said. “It’s a race track that really evolves as the rubber gets on the track and last year it was tough to drive on top of the rubber, so you really had to find different spots on the track to move around.
“As we always do, we want to have a versatile car that can run high or low and do things that you normally do, but I think the biggest goal in this instance is to just not be in right field, try to get yourself in the ballpark and be able to adjust on it so you don’t have to have a rebuild and a reboot.”
Harvick is the points leader in his No. 4 Ford Mustang, the lone driver to have top-10 finishes in each of the four races, before the series was put on hold. He was fifth at Daytona, eighth at Las Vegas, ninth at California and second at Phoenix. Joey Logano of Team Penske has a series-high two wins (Las Vegas, Phoenix) in a Ford and trails Harvick by a single point.
Harvick has witnessed a lot since taking the seat of legendary Dale Earnhardt at RCR (Richard Childress Racing) following Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Harvick will be looking for his 50th win Sunday. He won eight races in 2018, four more in 2019, including the August race at Michigan International Speedway the last two years.
For the restart of the series, NASCAR wanted teams to be able to drive to the tracks from their shops in Charlotte, and Darlington is just two hours away. Michigan native Erik Jones is the defending race champion at Darlington.
Sunday’s 3:30 p.m. race (Fox) will likely be run in 90-degree weather.
“You obviously don’t know what condition you’re facing just because Darlington last year went into the night,” Harvick said. “This time it will be a relatively warm day in the sun most of the day, so Darlington is a very sensitive temperature track, so I think you kind of have to evolve as the race evolves.”
Harvick said drivers won’t be going into Sunday’s race completely blind about what to expect.
“You look at last year’s stuff, you look at the evolution of the cars as we’ve gone through the offseason and the first part of the season, knowing that you at least get to race on the same tire that you had last year,” he said. “So you take those common trends, you take the things that we needed to do differently from the last race, and try to blend all those things together, and then just know that most likely you’re not going to hit that target of making the car drive perfectly.”
Harvick has missed the consistent face-to-face interaction with others on his team during this shutdown.
“We’ve all learned through this that just your interaction with people is something that you just kind of took for granted, and I think as you look at it now that’s the part that you’re missing the most,” Harvick said.
Harvick said drivers will get used to the new normal, and he compared this era to the recession of 2008-09.
“You see a lot of changes in procedures, a lot of changes in the way that we’re preparing our race cars and the way the guys work at the shop in shifts,” Harvick said. “I could go on and on about the way things are different.
“A lot of things changed when we came out of that (financial crisis) and a lot of teams, a lot of things in the sport, business, everybody operated a lot differently as we came out of that. To me, the same thing is going to happen here. You’re going to operate differently.”
Harvick knows the sports world will be looking at NASCAR on Sunday, but he points out that his sport operates differently than others.
“Obviously, the eyes are on the sport,” Harvick said. “Our competitors and our crew guys and everybody who is at the race track needs to remind themselves when they leave their house that the world is watching and our country especially is watching and we need to make sure that we make all the right moves. When you look at the procedures and the precautions taken so far by NASCAR, just understand that there’s a personal responsibility that comes with each one of us to make sure that this goes as well as possible.
“There are going to be a lot of things that are right and there are going to probably be some things that are wrong, but I think that’s one reason that everybody is as cautious as they can be leading up to this race and trying to make sure that we do it as well as we can. So, it’s obviously not a normal situation, but I think our sport is much different than other sports as far as the interaction between the competitors and the way that things function.
“It’s not a locker room full of guys that are getting ready to go throw a ball around or have to have that interaction with each other on a weekly basis, so it’s a little bit different. We’ve got 40 guys (drivers) that need to make sure that they take it seriously from a driver’s side and a whole garage that will do the same. I think we’ll do that.”
Real Heroes 400
What: NASCAR Cup Series Race at Darlington Raceway
When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Darlington Raceway, Darlington, South Carolina