Team: #4 (Stewart-Haas Racing)
Top 5s: 17
Top 10s: 27
Best finish: 1st (Phoenix, Bristol, Loudon, Kansas)
Points finish: 8th
2016 marked the third season under the 16-driver Chase elimination format. As NASCAR entered the year, Kevin Harvick was the early favorite to win his second title after finishing first and second in the first two years of the Chase Grid.
Harvick began his 2016 season on a strong note, finishing in the top-10 in the first five races, including a dramatic victory at Phoenix when he edged out Carl Edwards for the win by just .01 seconds. Crashes at Kentucky and Daytona did nothing to deter his spot atop the points standings as the lowest he fell since taking the points lead in Atlanta was 3rd after Texas. He followed up his Phoenix win with a victory at Bristol’s rain-delayed August race.
Chase reseeding dropped him to 4th in the standings as Chicagoland arrived. The first five races of the Chase provided a mixed bag of both success and struggles as he won two races but finished 20th or worse in the other three races. Otherwise, he was able to advance to the Rounds of 12 and 8.
Entering the Round of 8, Harvick had never been eliminated in the new Chase format. However, a 20th-place finish at Martinsville proved to be too much to overcome despite finishing 6th and 4th in the next two races as Harvick missed the final round.
Harvick ended the 2016 season by winning the pole and finishing 3rd at Homestead. With 27 top-10 finishes, Harvick led all drivers in that category, while his average finish of 9.9 was highest. Although he finished 8th in the Chase Grid, he would have won the title by 27 points if there was no Chase format.
His Chase victories at Loudon and Kansas. When discussing “clutch moments” in NASCAR, Harvick’s efforts at these two races would come to mind.
Entering both races, Harvick was on the cusp of elimination due to frustrating opening-round results. After finishing 20th at Chicagoland, Harvick was 13th in points and needed either strong finishes at both Loudon and Dover or a win in either race if he wanted to advance out of the Round of 16. At Loudon, Harvick moved up the field from a 19th-place starting position. A late caution with eight laps to go set up a final restart, on which Harvick passed the dominant car of Matt Kenseth to steal the victory and advance to the Round of 12.
Despite the win, his success fell apart in the next two races. A DNF at Charlotte dropped him back towards the possibility of missing the Round of 8 as the Cup Series went to Kansas, a track that Harvick had finished 2nd in May but had never won at since 2013. He started 11th in the race but took the lead with 30 laps to go. Harvick held off a charging Carl Edwards to clinch a spot in the Round of 8.
“These races are so hard to win, and these guys are so good at the details,” Harvick stated. “You put their backs against the wall and they get better. I’m really proud of them.”
Back-to-back finishes outside of 35th at the Dover and Charlotte races. Coming off a crucial win at Loudon to lock him into the Round of 12, Harvick’s fortunes seemed to disappear in the next two races.
Harvick entered Dover with hopes of defending his title as the fall race winner, but was unable to do so when his rear tire blew on lap 35. Upon further inspection, his rear track bar had broke. Although he was able to return to the race, he was multiple laps down and finished 37th, his worst finish since a 32nd-place run at Watkins Glen. Had it not been for his Loudon win, he would have been eliminated.
The following week’s race at Charlotte also did not offer any success. After winning the pole, his day started to falter when his car began to suffer from electrical problems; his race came to an end on lap 155 when his engine expired. He finished 38th, only his fourth finish worse than 30th and the third race he failed to finish in 2016. Harvick also dropped from 1st in the points standings to 12th.
Little did he know that the following race at Kansas would provide him with a breather and a ticket to the Round of 8.
As Stewart-Haas Racing makes the transition to Ford for 2017, fans expect Harvick to continue his success and once again fight for another championship. Harvick has thrived since he joined SHR in 2014, recording 12 wins, 11 poles and a championship.
After many rumors of him joining Hendrick Motorsports’ #5 car, his long-term contract extension with SHR all but guarantees he will be the lead driver in the SHR stable.
Featured image courtesy of Chris Trotman