● The NASCAR Playoffs begin Sunday with the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, and for the 16th time since the advent of the playoffs in 2004, Harvick is a part of it. Harvick qualified for this year’s playoffs by scoring two wins – Aug. 7 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn and Aug. 14 at Richmond (Va.) Raceway. This is Harvick’s 13th consecutive playoff appearance. He won the championship in 2014.
● Darlington is one of the 10 tracks that make up the NASCAR Playoffs, and of Harvick’s 60 career NASCAR Cup Series victories, 26 have come at playoff tracks. Three of those wins have been at Darlington, while Harvick also has three wins apiece at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway in Ford Worth. He has two wins at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and one win each at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway and Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. The remaining nine wins were earned at the most valuable playoff venue – Phoenix Raceway, home to the championship-deciding race. The only track where Harvick doesn’t have a win is the Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway Roval.
● Darlington is known as “The Track Too Tough To Tame” but Harvick has tamed the venerable 1.366-mile oval three times, the second-most of any active NASCAR Cup Series driver. The 46-year-old racer from Bakersfield, California, owns two Southern 500 victories (2014 and 2020) and one win in the track’s 400-mile race. In fact, Harvick enters Darlington with an impressive record – he hasn’t finished outside the top-10 since 2012. How long ago was that? “Gangnam Style” and its music video by South Korean singer Psy went viral in 2012, four years before the social media app TikTok became reality.
● That’s a long time, but not nearly as long as Darlington has been around. The 2022 season marks the track’s 72nd anniversary, with the egg-shaped oval having hosted 122 NASCAR Cup Series races. The first came on Sept. 4, 1950 and it was the first 500-mile race in NASCAR history and the first on asphalt. Johnny Mantz drove his Plymouth to the win with an average speed of 75.250 mph and the race took 6 hours, 38 minutes and 40 seconds to complete. Juxtapose that with Harvick’s win in the 2020 Southern 500. His Ford Mustang had an average speed of 132.256 mph and the race finished in 3 hours, 47 minutes and 26 seconds.
● COVID-19 stopped racing in its tracks in 2020. After the checkered flag dropped March 8 at Phoenix Raceway, NASCAR went on a 10-week hiatus as the world grappled with the scale of a pandemic not seen since the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919. NASCAR had to navigate a brave new world, and the sport was one of the first to return to action when racing resumed May 17 at Darlington. It was a welcome surprise, as one version of NASCAR’s hypothetical return featured a start date of Oct. 25 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a stretch of 30 races in 64 days that would wrap with three straight races at Phoenix… on Jan. 1-3 of 2021. In a time of great uncertainty, seeing sports’ return with NASCAR pacing the field proved both prideful and poignant. Harvick never let off the gas even as the season ground to a halt. He focused on all the little details that go into wheeling a 3,400-pound racecar around tracks faster than 39 of his competitors. The result? After finishing second March 8 at Phoenix, Harvick one-upped that result by winning in NASCAR’s return to racing May 17 at Darlington.
● That win on May 17, 2020 at Darlington was Harvick’s milestone 50th career NASCAR Cup Series victory. Harvick led 159 of the race’s 293 laps to secure his 11th straight season as a Cup Series winner. His career win total now stands at 60, which puts him in a tie for ninth on the all-time Cup Series win list with Kyle Busch.
● Among active NASCAR Cup Series drivers, Harvick leads the following categories at Darlington:
● Most starts: 29 (tied with Kurt Busch)
● Most top-fives: 13 (next best is Denny Hamlin with 11)
● Most top-10s: 18 (next best is Hamlin with 15)
● Most laps led: 813 (next best is Hamlin with 786)
● Most laps completed: 9,663 (next best is Kurt Busch with 9,571)
● Note: Hamlin leads the series in wins at Darlington with four, while Harvick stands alone with three wins.
● Who are the all-time leaders at Darlington? Check out these eye-popping statistics:
● Most starts: 65 by Richard Petty
● Most wins: 10 by David Pearson
● Most top-fives: 25 by Petty
● Most top-10s: 34 by Petty
● Most laps led: 2,391 by Petty
● Most laps completed: 17,120 by Petty
● Note: The 17,120 laps completed by Petty translates to 23,434.11 miles, almost equal to the equatorial circumference of the Earth (24,901 miles).
● Harvick has proven immensely consistent at Darlington outside of the NASCAR Cup Series. He has made 16 NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at Darlington, finishing among the top-10 nine times, with a best result of third in September 2017. Harvick has also made two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts at Darlington, with a best result of fourth in March 2002.
● Darlington is filled with time-honored traditions, so it’s only appropriate that the historic track is part of a new NASCAR tradition – Workforce Appreciation Weekend. This initiative showcases the NASCAR industry’s appreciation to the American workforce. As part of this endeavor, race teams are recognizing individuals who go above and beyond with a Workforce Appreciation Honorary Crew Member position. For the No. 4 team of Stewart-Haas Racing, that person is Darlington-native Jackie Tyner, a key accounts manager who works for Anheuser Busch’s local wholesaler, Southern Crown Partners. For 41 years, Tyner has managed all wholesaler activities at Darlington Raceway. Born and raised in Darlington, he believes the community and the racetrack are a huge part of his identity. Tyner counts late NASCAR executive Jim Hunter as an early mentor in his career, as one of the many roles Hunter served in during his distinguished career was Darlington track president. A true South Carolinian, Tyner raises pecans with his wife, Michelle, within earshot of the rumbling of racecars at Darlington. He is a proud father of three who loves spending time with his eight grandchildren. As part of his honorary crew member position, Tyner’s name appears above the passenger-side door of Harvick’s No. 4 Busch Light Retro Ford Mustang in the Cook Out Southern 500.
You’re in the playoffs for a 13th consecutive season and your 16th overall. How does making the playoffs this year compare to any of those previous playoff seasons?
“I would say it’s been a very different route to get to this point. As we started the year with the new car, we were on the wrong side of the fence and trying to figure everything out. And as we’ve gone through the year we’ve become progressively better, and we figured some things out and got back to victory lane and really have some momentum as we start the process of these last 10 weeks and racing for a championship. The biggest thing is, we’re giving ourselves a chance to race for the championship – that’s the first goal. That looked bleak for a little while, but now we’re in a good position to get started.”
You were on a 65-race winless streak and, coming into August, your playoff chances looked bleak. Then you won back-to-back races to secure your spot in the playoffs as the ninth seed. Is there any rhyme or reason to peaking at the right time?
“There’s zero. I wish I could find the keys to that equation. As you look at the things we’ve done this year, as far as our routine and the things that we do and how we communicate, all of that is the same. It’s just the progression of learning about the car, and putting ourselves in a position to have cars that are fast enough to compete at the front. They’ve done a good job of making some adjustments on pit road – the pit crew has been on fire, and they’re making good adjustments on the car. That’s just the learning process that’s come with this particular season. There have been a few races this season where we’ve been in position to win, but haven’t had things work out. I think as you go back to Michigan and Richmond and look at those races, you’re in position to win and have a fast car and everything goes your way and no mistakes. So you just never know when that streak of momentum is going to go your way, and you never know when that streak of momentum is going to go against you. You never know how long it’s going to last in either direction, and you just have to ride that wave as long as you can by just trying to do the right things day after day, week after week, to create the best situation possible to capitalize when it does swing your way.”
Do you like Darlington serving as the opening race of the 10-race playoffs?
“Well, Darlington just screams NASCAR. From a competitor’s standpoint, when you drive through the tunnel and you look at that racetrack, it looks the same as it did in 1960. From my standpoint, being able to race at a racetrack like that, whatever generation car I’m in, you can relate back to how it started. Darlington is narrow, it’s unique, and it’s just Darlington. You pull in the tunnel and you see the blue tarps and the tents and the people just hanging out in the infield – it’s just a great place to race and forever a part of NASCAR history that I will always enjoy.”
What stands out for you the most at Darlington?
“I know the characteristics of the racetrack, as far as having to respect it and racing the track. I know what that means, and I’ve definitely been in the wrong position and got carried away and had it bite me before. But it’s a place that I look forward to going to. It’s a place where I enjoy racing and love the challenges that go with it. I think over the last several years we’ve been fortunate to have some success there, and the expectation is to go there and have a chance to race up front and put yourself in contention. So that’ll be the expectation as we go back this time and, hopefully, we can do that and have some fun.”
Five hundred miles at Darlington, during the heat and humidity of Labor Day weekend, makes for a very demanding race. How do you approach it?
“No matter how hot it is, it’s just a mentally taxing race. It’s just you against the track and being able to have that mindset and know that every lap you have to be up on top of the wheel in order to keep yourself from rubbing up against the wall or doing something that’s detrimental to your car, but also pushing the car hard enough and keeping up with the tire fall-off and understanding all the things that are going on. There are just a lot of moving pieces at Darlington, but it’s really taxing, mentally.”
What skillsets are rewarded at Darlington?
“Darlington favors the guy who can be very disciplined and is able to push the car right to 99.9 percent of where that tire run is, and be able to put the car up against the wall and not overstep those boundaries. You have to be very disciplined there to get everything out of the car and keep up with the tire fall-off and not tear anything up – on your own, let alone being around everybody else.”
Is competing at Darlington about racing the track and your competitors, or is it more about managing your tires?
“You’ve got to know when to let somebody go, because you can make it a lot harder on somebody to pass than what it used to be with the things that go on aerodynamically with this particular car. The biggest thing that you have to do is get the restarts right and get yourself really singled out, and once you get singled out, then you can start making some different decisions on when to let somebody go, when to not let somebody go, how hard to fight somebody, and things like that. It just takes one moment there to slip up and the right-rear toe link will be knocked off the car. You can rub the car up against the wall, but if you clip that right-rear tire wrong, it’s going to be the end of your night.”
Running that line up against the wall is not the line you typically run. The “Kevin Harvick Line” is along the bottom. Which line is most advantageous, and when?
“With this particular car, you’ve just got to be careful with how much you abuse the tires because it drives off the right-rear tire so much that you have to think about that a little bit differently. It didn’t seem like that was 100 percent the preferred way to do it through (turns) three and four the last time. You’ve just got to be as easy as possible on the right-rear tire.”