● Darlington (S.C.) Raceway is home to the Official Throwback Weekend of NASCAR, and for Sunday’s Goodyear 400 NASCAR Cup Series race, drivers and teams use their racecars to turn back time by running throwback liveries. The racecars are the canvas where the paints of the past come alive. For Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 team of Stewart-Haas Racing, they’re throwing it back to the paint scheme Harvick was originally scheduled to race when he made his Cup Series debut back in 2001 with Richard Childress Racing (RCR). America Online, the venerable web portal and online service provider that gave us the ubiquitous “You’ve got mail!” alert, was set to be Harvick’s sponsor, but the death of Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the season-opening Daytona 500 thrust Harvick into the car Earnhardt used to drive. Earnhardt’s iconic No. 3 was changed to the No. 29 and a 25-year-old Harvick was the new face of RCR. The AOL-sponsored No. 30 originally earmarked for Harvick ultimately went to Jeff Green, with a delayed debut at the 10th race of the season at California Speedway in Fontana. Twenty-three years later, Harvick finally gets to drive his AOL-inspired paint scheme with sponsor SUNNYD, where the logos of the Harvest Hill Beverage Company’s brand aligns with the styling SUNNYD carried on its early aughts packaging. The most refreshing orange drink in existence has taken a fresh look on a paint scheme that almost never existed.
● 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 47-year-old racer from Bakersfield, California, owns two Southern 500 victories (2014 and 2020) and one win in the track’s 400-mile race.
● The 2023 season marks Darlington’s 73rd anniversary, with the egg-shaped oval having hosted 123 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 10th on the Cup Series’ all-time win list.
● Among active NASCAR Cup Series drivers, Harvick leads the following categories at Darlington:
● Most starts: 30
● Most top-fives: 13 (next best is Denny Hamlin with 12)
● Most top-10s: 18 (next best is Hamlin with 16)
● Most laps led: 813 (next best is Hamlin with 792)
● Most laps completed: 9,937 (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 Truck Series starts at Darlington, with a best result of fourth in March 2002.
What stands out the most for you 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.”
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.”
What was it like when you won at Darlington in May 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?
“Darlington in 2020 was one of those types of moments where you didn’t really know what to expect or how it was going to go. Going to the racetrack that day, I felt weird because everybody else was at home and didn’t want to leave, and I didn’t know if I should be on the road or not on the road. There weren’t many people out there, and pulling into the racetrack and going straight to the motorhome, changing your clothes and walking down pit road straight to the car, and not really knowing what to do or where to go and how this was going to go – just barreling down into turn one, and not having any practice or anything that we had done over the last couple of months. There were a lot of questions, but quickly it just turned into a race. Inside the racecar, you had those same emotions and same feelings and same adrenaline and everything that goes with running up front and leading laps and winning the race. But when it really hit home was when I stepped out of the racecar and I had all that excitement and all that enthusiasm and you could’ve heard a pin drop in that place. Really, the only thing I remember about after the race, the one thing that sticks out the most about how quiet it was, Ryan Blaney’s spotter, Josh Williams, yelled from the top, ‘Great job, Harv!’ and I could hear him like he was standing right next to me. We did the awkward interview and before I got back in my car he yelled that from the spotter’s stand. To get our sport back to the racetrack and see the text messages from folks that were in the NFL and Major League Baseball – I got a text from the White House – and just how important that particular race was to be back on the racetrack and, really, what it showed our country and the world what we should be starting to work on doing, and we pulled it off. Winning that race and living all those awkward moments made you realize how important of a moment that was not only for our sport, but the country in general.”
As part of NASCAR’s 75th anniversary celebration, NASCAR is also celebrating its 75 greatest drivers. What’s a NASCAR memory you have that doesn’t involve you?
“That’s a tough question because so much of my life has revolved around all this, but I think Dale Earnhardt winning the Daytona 500 was late enough in my previous life of not being in the middle of it all. I think that was just a huge moment for our sport and RCR (Richard Childress Racing). I didn’t know anything about RCR at that particular time other than what you see from the outside looking in, but what a huge moment for the sport. Some of my memories are seeing Davey Allison coming to Mesa Marin, and watching Joe Ruttman drive around on a flat tire at Mesa Marin and leading an Open Comp race back in the day, or the lights going out while Ron Hornaday and Rick Carelli and Mike Chase were battling for the lead. Mine are a little bit skewed to West Coast racing. Obviously, we watched national races and different moments in the sport, but there are a lot of great moments from the Winston West Series and the Busch North Series. I go back to the pictures of the 50th anniversary and you look at the front of the NASCAR magazine and all of the champions in that particular photo when NASCAR had all the touring series and all the champions together, and you look at that group of drivers and it brings back a lot of good memories.”
NASCAR Hall of Famers will also be honored at Darlington. From the Class of 2023, who stands out?
“Well, I can talk about all of them because I raced against Hershel McGriff, I raced against Kirk Shelmerdine, I obviously raced against Matt Kenseth, but I think if I had to choose just one, I would probably pick Mike Helton just because of the fact that he has been such a big part of my career and helping guide it in ways that you didn’t even know. Mike has always gone out of his way to try to help make you understand. After he would get done chewing your ass, he would bring you in the next week and say, ‘OK, how do you feel? What’s going on?’ He just has this way of communicating with you in such a stern way, but it’s not so stern that you feel like he’s trying to be a jerk. He’s just one of those guys that can deliver a message very sternly and make you understand, but also be your friend at the same time. You respected him. Mike is just an intimidating person, so if he’s the principal in this situation, then you’re really intimidated by him. I really feel like in today’s day and age that if you had a Mike Helton, it would help the drivers because you always knew where you stood with Mike and the things that you needed to do better.”