● The Coke Zero Sugar 400 NASCAR Cup Series race Saturday night at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway is the final race of the regular season. After the checkered flag drops on the 160-lap race around the 2.5-mile oval, the 10-race playoffs begin. Sixteen drivers will vie for the championship, and for the 14th straight year and the 17th time overall, Kevin Harvick will be a playoff contender. Thanks to an insurmountable 135-point margin over the playoff cut line, the driver of the No. 4 GEARWRENCHFord Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing clinched his spot in the playoffs last Sunday at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.
● Being locked into the NASCAR Playoffs has a distinct advantage when the cutoff race to make the 16-driver playoffs is Daytona. The only predictable thing about the race is its unpredictability. Pack racing is prominent at Daytona, making the Coke Zero Sugar 400 a 200 mph chess match. Properly positioning oneself can mean the difference between winning and triggering a massive accident. For Harvick and the 14 other drivers already locked into the playoffs, a victory or a DNF (Did Not Finish) has minimal impact on their championship aspirations. For everyone else, however, a win can secure their spot in the playoffs. There is only one open position remaining, and it’s essentially available for three entities – Bubba Wallace, who comes into Daytona with a 32-point cushion over the first driver on the outside of the playoff bubble, Ty Gibbs. If Wallace holds that margin over Gibbs, Wallace is in the playoffs. If Wallace falters and Gibbs overcomes that 32-point deficit, Gibbs is in the playoffs. But if any of these other drivers wins the Coke Zero Sugar 400 – Daniel Suárez, AJ Allmendinger, Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Austin Cindric, Justin Haley, Ryan Preece, Aric Almirola, Todd Gilliland, Corey LaJoie, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Harrison Burton, Chase Briscoe and Ty Dillon – then Wallace is out of the playoffs and the winning driver is in. Get your popcorn.
● When Harvick takes the green flag for the Coke Zero Sugar 400, it will be his series-leading 45th NASCAR Cup Series start at Daytona. Harvick made his Cup Series debut at the track on July 7, 2001, starting 10th and finishing 25th, one spot ahead of Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart. In Harvick’s 44 starts at the 2.5-mile oval, he has won twice – the 2007 Daytona 500 and the 2010 Coke Zero 400 – and scored 11 top-fives and 16 top-10s while leading 284 laps.
● Harvick’s 11 top-fives are tied with Denny Hamlin for the most among active NASCAR Cup Series drivers. Harvick’s 16 top-10s stand alone as the most among active Cup Series drivers, with next best Hamlin having 12 top-10s.
● Harvick’s first NASCAR Cup Series win at Daytona was one of the biggest of his career. Harvick won the 2007 Daytona 500 by edging Mark Martin for the victory by .02 of a second in a frantic, green-white-checkered finish. It remains the second-closest finish in Daytona 500 history, trailing only Hamlin’s .01-of-a-second margin over Martin Truex Jr., in 2016.
● Harvick was efficient in his second win at Daytona. When he won the 2010 Coke Zero 400, Harvick started from the pole and led eight times for a race-high 28 laps to take the victory by .092 of a second over runner-up Kasey Kahne.
● Harvick has proven prolific in the non-points NASCAR Cup Series races at Daytona. He is a three-time winner of the Busch Clash when it was held on the 2.5-mile oval (2009, 2010 and 2013) and he is a two-time winner of the Duel (2013 and 2019), twin 150-mile qualifying races that set the field for the Daytona 500.
● Outside of the NASCAR Cup Series, Harvick has made 19 career NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at Daytona and three IROC starts. Of Harvick’s 47 Xfinity Series wins, only one is at Daytona – the 2007 season opener. And Harvick’s best IROC finish at Daytona is seventh, earned twice (2003 and 2004). Harvick is a two-time Xfinity Series champion (2001 and 2006) and the 2002 IROC champion.
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You haven’t missed the playoffs since 2009. Is the key to that consistency your experience?
“Well, there are just different ways to race, right? There are different ways to solve the equation, and sometimes we’re going to run fourth, and we have to accept that and be able to say, ‘If we have a fourth-place car, we need to finish fourth.’ On the days when stuff is chaotic and there are cars torn up everywhere and you finish ninth with a 20th-place car, those are really big wins. I’ve done all that. I’ve been on that side of the fence where you’ve had 20th-place cars all year and you have to figure out how to make something out of it. They’re going to have the races, regardless, and you still have to show up. You can’t just quit because your cars are slow. So you just have to figure out how to manage that, and also manage it when you have fast cars, medium cars, know what you have that day and get the most out of that day.”
Does blocking remain the necessary evil it’s seemingly always been when it comes to superspeedway racing?
“It is, and blocking’s just part of the game now. You have to utilize blocking and that’s usually what causes half the crashes, either pushing or blocking. And we usually wreck going straight. I don’t like blocking, but it’s a necessity. Blocking is something that has evolved over the years as people have figured out trying to time the runs, and people have figured out when you can block and when you can’t. It’s just a matter of putting yourself in a position where you think you’re making the right move, and sometimes you make the wrong move. It’s just a game of inches. It really is a high-speed chess match that you have at 200 mph – and Saturday night will be absolutely no different. There will be a big crash. There will be mistakes made. There will be pit errors made. There will be strategy played. But I can promise you we’re all going to race in a pack – and that’s the way Daytona should be.”
What’s the patience level of drivers in the regular-season finale at Daytona?
“You see so many people on different agendas. It’s a chance for everybody to win. It’s a door wide open for everybody.”
Pack racing at Daytona is always dicey, but what is it like when it’s a cutoff race to make the NASCAR Playoffs?
“It’s a way different vibe. There’s not a better spot for it to be than Daytona because it is the ultimate saying – and you say it with an exclamation point. Anyone can win, and that is never more true than at Daytona. Everyone knows going in that it’s their last-ditch effort to either make the playoffs or put yourself in position to score more points for the playoffs. Everybody kind of has that, ‘Screw it. I’m going for it,’ mentality in that particular race because they know whatever the scenario is, it’s the last chance to score points, it’s the last chance to put you in.”
Describe the intensity of racing at Daytona.
“You have to be aggressive just for the fact that if you’re not aggressive, it always seems like you’re not going to be where you need to be. Nine times out of 10, the aggressor is going to be the guy who comes out on the good side of things just for the fact that you’re making things happen and you’re not waiting for something else to happen. When you wait for something else to happen, that’s usually when you get in trouble because it’s usually someone else’s mess. It’s best to stay aggressive and try to stay up front.”
When you get to the halfway point at Daytona, is there a sense of accomplishment?
“If you can make it through the second stage, hopefully you’ve taken some points out of there, but you’ve at least made it through the second stage. It seems like, especially at the beginning of stage racing, we all kind of lost our minds at the beginning of the first stage, or at the end of the second stage. We’ve had cars torn up before we got started. We could find a way to wreck regardless, whether it’s the first stage, the first lap, the last lap. We can figure it out, you just never know when it’s going to happen.”