August 13, 2018 / 6:41 PM / 4 months ago

'Happy Harvick' living up to nickname with special season

Kevin Harvick, nicknamed “Happy Harvick” years ago, collected his series-leading seventh win of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season at Michigan International Speedway Sunday afternoon — leading a dominant 108 of the 200 laps — feeling so good he escorted his six-year old son Keelan out to the front-stretch to pick up the checkered flag and wave to the enthusiastic crowd.

FILE PHOTO: Aug 12, 2018; Brooklyn, MI, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick (4) and Kyle Busch (18) during the Consumers Energy 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Then together, father and son rode to Victory Lane in Harvick’s winning No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Fusion, Keelan holding the flag out the passenger side door en route. After deciding to wait inside his dad’s car during the Victory Lane champagne spray bath, he ultimately climbed out and playfully splashed a water bottle on Harvick’s business manager standing nearby.

Good fun. Great day.

And if it sounds a little like a Disney fairytale, there are some that would argue that’s exactly how Harvick’s 2018 season has gone. But the success is truly a result of the hard work from the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team — work that is propelling the 42-year old Californian toward a historic championship run.

A win or two early in the season would have secured Harvick’s place in the playoffs and his team could have simply shifted its efforts to preparing for the season-ending championship run. But instead of coasting, this group has been in high-gear, super-focused and the mindset and hard work has produced an epic year.

Harvick has only finished outside of the top-10 four times all year and three of those were DNFs after being part of an incident. The other non-top-10 one was a 35th-place finish at Auto Club Speedway in California — a long day nursing an “off” car to the checkered flag.

His season win total (seven) is already a single season career high — with 13 races still remaining on the calendar. He and fellow member of the season’s “Big 3” championship contenders Kyle Busch have earned 21 victories each in the past five years — most among their competitors.

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson — who is still looking for his first win of the 2018 season — has 17 wins in that time frame as does reigning Cup champ Martin Truex Jr. Those four drivers (Harvick, 2014, Busch, 2015, Johnson, 2016, Truex 2017) are the last four series champions.

“The confidence is high, and right now you just don’t want to screw it up,” Harvick allowed Sunday afternoon. “I think the biggest thing that it does is it actually makes you work harder because of the fact that you want to cover all the details because you’re fairly certain that when the car rolls out of the hauler that it’s going to be fast, and if it’s not, you have the tools and the people to be able to figure it out and fix it.”

Yet even with the statistics and the performance Harvick must both figuratively and literally spend time looking in his rearview mirror. He’s having a career year and yet Busch is still on his heels and at his bumper every step of the way — creating a thrilling championship race for fans and keeping the SHR team honest and motivated.

Busch has six wins and 19 top-10 finishes in 23 races. And ... he was third behind Harvick on Sunday. He is the defending race winner at this week’s stop at Bristol Motor Speedway and he won the Spring race at the track earlier this season. Plus, his seven career wins there is best among active drivers.

Both Harvick and Busch are on pace to join a modern history elite club. The last time a driver scored double digit wins was 2007 when Johnson had 10 wins and won the championship. Prior to that, Jeff Gordon turned in an incredible streak of three consecutive seasons with the mark — 1996 (10 wins), 1997 (10 wins) and 1998 (13 wins).

“Any win in this division of racing is hard to come by, and like I say, I’ve been on both sides of that,” Harvick reiterated.

“I think right now, we’re just enjoying it and the guys on the team understand because they’ve been on both sides of that fence, as well, with the struggles and things that don’t always go your way. We’re going to enjoy it. We’re going to enjoy each other, and we’ve eliminated a lot of extracurricular things to make sure that all we focus on is this race team. Don’t care about anything else.

“Right now it’s all about winning races and making sure that myself and (crew chief) Rodney (Childers) and everybody is covering the details and being in the right state of mind as we go into Vegas (playoff opener).”

It all makes for compelling, must-see TV and as much as Harvick, Busch and Truex Jr., a four-time winner and also member of The Big 3, may celebrate, the fans and the series are winning too. This is a season for the ages — a legitimately epic battle for trophies creating a dramatic playoff scenario and re-writing modern history.

“You never know what’s going to happen, and we go in one week at a time trying to focus on the things we need to focus on, and right now we’re going to enjoy this one and drink some cold Busch beer once we get home or I am,” Harvick said smiling.

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