Aside from Kevin Harvick‘s two summer wins in 2022, he had a challenging first-year experience with the Next Gen car. There was inconsistency, wrecks, fire and candor remarks.
The first quarter of the 2023 season has been a different story.
Following a 21st-place finish after having to pit during overtime at Talladega Superspeedway, Harvick sits third in the championship standings, a mere 20 points behind regular season leader Christopher Bell. Compared to this time last year when Harvick ranked 11th in points and more than 100 points south of the points leader, 2023 has started off much stronger for the No. 4 team.
“It‘s not even comparable to last year,” Harvick recently told Jayski.com. “We‘ve been in contention to win a few races and that‘s the most important thing is to put yourself in contention to have a chance to win races. Now, we just need it all to go right.
“We‘ve had speed in the cars at several races. When we haven‘t, we‘ve figured it out and got quality finishes. Scoring stage points is probably the biggest change for us compared to last year up until this point. The first part of this year, it would be hard to compare (to last). One is good and one is bad.”
In the first year of the Next Gen era, it took Harvick 14 races to score a trio of top-five finishes. This season, it took half of that, as he rounded out the top five at Richmond Raceway to kick off the month of April. Add that to his impressive performance at Phoenix Raceway where the No. 4 Ford was in position to win until a caution came out with less than a handful of laps remaining and bumped Harvick back to fifth.
The No. 4 team also tackled Martinsville Speedway, a venue that‘s been among Harvick‘s worst since moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. In a race that SHR led more than half of, Harvick paced the field for 20 circuits. Those were the first laps he led at the famed paperclip in his last 14 starts at the track, dating back to the spring of 2016. Evidently, he cut a tire late in the event and finished 20th.
“That was arguably the best car we‘ve had at Martinsville from the [No.] 4 car standpoint, probably ever,” Harvick reiterated. “We just have to keep doing what we‘re doing. If you keep putting yourself in position, eventually you get to Victory Lane.”
At Martinsville, he also picked up his first stage win since his dominant nine-race win season in 2020. The juxtaposition from this year to last is night and day. And the No. 4 car has that raw speed back.
“We were just slow last year, to be honest with you,” Harvick said of his first year in the Next Gen. “I was not comfortable in the car and didn‘t know what I needed in the car. There were a lot of things that we were learning and transitioning to try to figure out what exactly was what and how it worked.”
Another track Harvick was uncomfortable with early in his career was Dover Motor Speedway. It took him 30 tries and a change in organizations to capture his first Miles the Monster trophy, which he considers his favorite moment of his racing career at Dover. On that weekend, qualifying was canceled and he began the race from 15th position. The No. 4 car raced to the lead by lap 24 and led 355 of the final 377 laps.
Since that breakthrough triumph, Harvick has been damn near unstoppable at Dover with another pair of victories in 2018 and 2020. He rides a streak of eight consecutive top-10 finishes at the Monster Mile into this weekend‘s visit.
“When I went to Stewart-Haas, Rodney put a lot of effort into trying to figure that weakness out from my standpoint,” Harvick said of Dover. “From the first race there, I had a new perspective on what I needed to do with the car. We had a lot of information from the Hendrick camp and what they put into the car and how they drove the car and set up the car. From the time I‘ve been at SHR, it‘s been one of our best tracks.
“Definitely more fun to run good at Dover than it is to get run over because there‘s nowhere to hide and you can‘t get out of the way.”
In 16 starts at Dover with SHR, Harvick has led north of 200 laps in five races. Last year, he finished ninth in his first shot at the Monster Mile in the Next Gen car.
Being one of just nine drivers to make 800 Cup Series starts as of Talladega, Harvick is one of 10 drivers with 60 race wins. In addition to 248 top-five and 435 top-10 finishes with 15,975 laps led, Harvick has put together a first ballot Hall of Fame career. In his retirement tour, he continues to have flashbacks of the past, honoring his time in the sport. The coolest one thus far is announcing the return of the No. 29 car at North Wilkesboro Speedway for the All-Star Race next month.
“When you look at the feedback and impact of that particular week, day and announcing that car with the feedback from the fans and everything that went with that was way bigger than I think any of us anticipated it being,” Harvick said. “That‘s definitely been the biggest eyeopener so far.”
Next up, though, is Dover.