Three of the drivers that make up the Championship 4 going into the season finale and title deciding Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway have something in common. Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex, Jr. all drive for Joe Gibbs Racing and it doesn’t take much of a math wizard to deduce that the organization owned by the legendary football coach has a 75% chance of claiming the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series trophy.
As a result of there being three of the four drivers still standing with a shot at earning one of auto racing’s most prestigious crowns there might be the tendency to forget about the “other guy”. However, that other guy is someone who definitely should not be forgotten in a situation such as this, especially in a one-race showdown on this particular track.
During a Championship 4 media availability Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick was asked if the fact that he was the only non JGR driver still in the title hunt would work to his advantage.
“I think that’s yet to be determined,” the 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion replied. “I think for us it’s very simple in that there’s no worries about making the sponsors mad, or another team member mad. There is no scenario, it’s how do we get Stewart-Haas Racing another championship and all four teams have bought into that and want to do the exact same thing because of the fact that it’s good for Stewart-Haas Racing.”
According to the 43-year-old driver, his team’s efforts throughout the season have culminated in this championship opportunity. The No. 4 Ford team scored four victories along with 14 top-5 and 25 top-10 finishes during the 2019 campaign to reach this point. And now that he stands alone against the JGR juggernaut, Harvick is appreciative of the unity within the SHR organization.
“Our guys have worked their butts off on all the cars over the last four weeks in trying to do everything that they can to continue to learn about the cars and as I think you saw at Texas where it was definitely a situation where we put a lot of pieces together and it wound up being a good day,” Harvick pointed out. “They would be mad at me for saying this but it’s still a little bit of a guess as to where you’re at, it’s a science as to how you get to that point of where you think things are going to be but it’s definitely been nice not to deal with any politics internally or anything. It’s just ‘what do you need?’ and ‘let’s do it’ and everybody’s worked really hard so there’s nothing to navigate for us.”
The Bakersfield, California native told the assembled media that the current season did not exactly begin with the results that he, crew chief Rodney Childers, and the rest of the team might have wanted. The aerodynamic package put in place by NASCAR at the beginning of the season proved to be a challenge. However, determination to improve has lead to the Championship 4 appearance.
“As we started the season, the results weren’t bad. We had mediocre results for what we expect as the No. 4 team,” Harvick explained. “But it’s been a grind and battle week-in and week-out as to what do we need because the thought process is so different from what we’ve done before. I think as an organization we’ve had to struggle through that and it’s been a grind. I would be lying to you if I told you it hasn’t been taxing on everybody in the amount of work that has been put in to get to this point. That’s the good part about working at Stewart-Haas is that you’ve got a group of racers and that’s what they want to do, they want to be competitive and they’re not satisfied with finishing fourth like we did five or so races out of the first seven or eight.”
In particular, the driver who will be seeking his 50th NASCAR Cup Series win on Sunday says his cars have gained speed on the tracks of 1.5 miles in length. Coincidentally, Homestead-Miami Speedway measures 1.5 miles in length.
“You have to be able to lead laps and you have to be able to get top-fives in order to have a chance at winning races and we just weren’t at that point in the first half of the year,” Harvick insisted. “I feel like we’ve still been sporadic in the style of race track that we can lead laps on. We’ve done a good job at being able to get our speed back on the mile-and-a-halfs. That was our focus in the second half of the year was getting speed back on the mile-and-a-halfs so we could lead laps.”
While Harvick has won more races at other tracks, Homestead-Miami is statistically his best in terms of average finishing position. In 18 starts he has compiled one win along with ten top-5 and 16 top-10 finishes for an average finishing result of 6.6. But the proven driver knows that factors such as tire wear, pit strategies, and changing conditions throughout the weekend will go a long toward determining Sunday’s outcome.
Still, nothing is for certain, even for a veteran driver and crew.
“I think that at this particular point it’s a little bit of a guess just because we all know that Homestead is so much different than a lot of the race tracks that we go to,” Harvick explained. “Our guys have done a great job in preparation regardless of how it goes having scenarios, and situations, and adjustability and all of those types of things prepared for the weekend as to how you unload for the first practice to see where the race track is and where you are with your car.”
For this former champion, this weekend is the reward for a job well done throughout the grind of a long season.
“You definitely race all year to get here. For me, it’s really about being competitive every week. This is the icing on the cake and I couldn’t do this if we were struggling on a week-to-week basis trying to finish tenth. It’s too much work and too hard to do and I don’t think our guys on the team would ever be satisfied with that. It is a battle to get to this point. We try to race like it’s championship weekend every week so that when you’re in situations or you’re here that there’s really nothing different that’s going to happen.”
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
Respond to this piece on Twitter –> @RichardAllenIDR
or on Facebook –> InsideCircleTrack/Facebook