For Harvick, winning has turned into a game

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 12: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Light Ford, poses with the winner's decal after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series KC Masterpiece 400 at Kansas Speedway on May 12, 2018 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Kevin Harvick’s series-best five wins and nine top-five finishes through 12 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races is a career-best season “opening” for a driver, ironically best known as the ‘The Closer’.

In true form, Harvick’s closing laps victory at Kansas Speedway on Saturday night gave him back-to-back wins (also including Dover the previous week) and a pair of pole positions in the last three races. He has a series-high five victories on the year.

Harvick’s grand total of 19 wins dating back to his 2014 Cup championship season is the most in the series during that span. It betters Kyle Busch’s 18 win tally in that time as well as Jimmie Johnson’s 17 wins and Joey Logano’s 16 wins.

And again, we’re only 12 races into the 2018 schedule.

“Now it feels like a game,” Harvick, 42, said smiling in Saturday night’s post-race interview at Kansas.

“It really does, because of the fact that you want to see how many races you can win. You want to see how many laps you can lead. We know that we’re riding a momentum wave that is hard to come by, and you need to capitalize on it as many times as you can because it may never come again. I’ve never had it in my career, and I’ve been doing this for 18 years.”

Harvick has won by dominating a race – like his 201 laps led at Dover. He’s won on team strategy and veteran savvy. He’s won on dramatic passes, such as Saturday night at Kansas. And his 820 laps out front in the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford this season are easily the most in the series (Kyle Busch is next with 498).

There is precedent to such an impressive start to the year. And it’s quite a stellar path to be driving down.

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon also won five of the first 12 races in the 1997 Cup season. In fact he won six of the first 13 races and seven of the first 15 en route to a 10-win championship season.

As Harvick is doing, Gordon reeled off consecutive wins. Twice during that season-opening span of excellence he won back-to-back — the Daytona 500 then at Rockingham, N.C. and again at Bristol, Tenn. then Martinsville, Va. For Harvick, getting on a “role” has been a real thing. All his victories this season have come in consecutive stretches. He won three straight – at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix – and has a two-race streak going now.

“You know, we talked about it this week, it’s something that you may never do again in your career, and while you have fast cars and while you have momentum and while you have a group of guys that gives it everything they have and a driver that gives it everything that he can, like you have to, like you have to just fight every week and give it everything you’ve got,” Harvick’s crew chief Rodney Childers said following Kansas.

“I mean, if it’s eight races you win, if it’s ten races you win, if it’s 12 races you win, the reason that we all are here is because of watching people like Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham win 12 races a year, and that’s what your goal should be no matter what race team you are. Yeah, you’ve got to keep going.”

There is no statistical reason to believe he’ll slow down any time soon. Even when Harvick hasn’t won, he’s still contended for the win.

Harvick has had success at the next Cup points-paying race, the May 27 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, winning twice (2011 and 2013) and starting from pole position there last year. Since his 2013 win at Charlotte, Harvick has eight top-10 finishes in the last nine races at the track, including three runner-up finishes – twice in the 600-miler (2014 and 2016). He finished runner-up in his very first try at the 600 in 2001.

As for this week’s Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race, Harvick was runner-up in the event in 2014 and 2015.

It all bodes well for the Stewart-Haas Racing team and Harvick’s success is the cherry on top of a career season for the entire four-car operation.  Harvick leads the series in wins but his second-year teammate Clint Bowyer took home a grandfather clock trophy for winning at Martinsville this year (his first victory in six years) and is ranked sixth in the standings. Veteran Kurt Busch is ranked fifth and team newcomer Aric Almirola is 11th.

“These moments are not something that happens very often, and now you need to go put every detail into a car like you’re racing for a championship race at Homestead every week because it just has that special feel to it,” Harvick said.

“It’s just a good time to be at SHR. They’re doing a great job of putting fast race cars on the track, but I think when you look at a night like tonight, it really shows the experience of the team because I feel like this is the kind of cars that we had in 2014 but we had a lot of parts failures. We were all new. We made a lot of mistakes and just didn’t really know how to deal with it like we do now, but yeah, it’s [winning] addicting. Now it’s a game.”

And Harvick is winning.

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