Kevin Harvick is already over how his 2020 season came to a close and he wants you to move on too.
The most prolific Cup Series season in over a decade did not produce a championship, nor more controversially, did it even culminate in a Final Four appearance in November at Phoenix Raceway.
Take your time reading these stats: Harvick won nine times and earned 27 top-10s and 20 top-5s in 36 starts. Simply stated, he won a quarter of the races, finished inside the top-10 75 percent of the time and earned top-5s in over half his overall starts.
The second most successful campaign was Denny Hamlin’s seven wins, 18 top-5s and 21 top-10s. Hamlin didn’t win the championship either. However, he was at least amongst the four who raced for it.
Instead, it was Chase Elliott becoming the third youngest champion in Cup Series history with five wins, 15 top-5s and 22 top-10s. That’s not to take anything away from Elliott, who defined what it means to win a championship in the playoff era with three wins over the final five races when it paid the most to execute.
But it really wasn’t a lack of execution that doomed Harvick’s season.
Rather, it was a series of unfortunate events that placed him in desperate straits in the penultimate round, ultimately eliminating him in the penultimate race at Martinsville Speedway.
Harvick was poised to advance into the championship in the first race of the Round of 8 at Kansas Speedway but couldn’t overcome the dirty air of the NA18D rules package. He was trapped behind Joey Logano for the final 20 laps despite having a clearly faster car.
The next week, at Texas Motor Speedway, NASCAR held onto the yellow flag for far too long when it started to rain and only threw it once Harvick broke traction and slapped the outside retaining wall.
Then, facing a must-win scenario at Martinsville, Harvick suffered a flat tire that trapped him off the lead lap for much of the race, and below the elimination cut line. Needing one more point to advance into the championship race on the final lap, Harvick blatantly attempted to crash Kyle Busch on the final lap, doing whatever it took to advance.
He failed, crashing himself instead and found himself on the outside looking in the following week at Phoenix.
“In the end, it really didn’t matter (because) we ran terrible at Phoenix,” Harvick says now. “So it’s not like we were going to win the championship.”
It’s easy to make the 2007 New England Patriots comparison, the team that went undefeated in the regular season and throughout the playoffs, only to lose to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
Instead, the 2020 No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team more closely resembled the 2001 Seattle Mariners. That team tied a Major League Baseball record with 116 wins but failed to reach the World Series with an American League Championship Series loss to the New York Yankees.
Kurt Busch, who won the inaugural Chase for the Championship Playoffs in 2004, says this is the dynamic that NASCAR has finally replicated. He also drew comparisons to the underdog Tampa Bay Buccaneers who have advanced all the way to Sunday’s Super Bowl LV from a Wild Card berth.
“What we saw with Kevin Harvick not making it is very similar to football where let’s say Tom Brady had to go on the road and beat all those other teams to work his way to the Super Bowl,” Busch said. “That’s an underdog-style team that didn’t even know who they were going to end up playing each week. …
“Whether you have a points cushion or whether you don’t, ultimately there is the black-and-white task of getting this many points ahead of this other guy to advance. It’s a bonafide championship system that is very clear to understand. You have to go out there and perform each and every week and do what it takes to advance.
“It’s not just a given when you’ve performed well all year.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two Xfinity Series championship under the traditional season-long format, but echoed Busch with the football analogy.
“The Chiefs very well could have lost to the Browns and had the best regular season and been one and done,” Stenhouse said. “So, I just think our sport has evolved. I think it’s made it really interesting every round of the Playoffs.
“You’ve got to perform. Obviously, the 4 and the 11 were by far the best last year over the course of the whole season, and yet, neither one of them won the championship. But I think it’s those Game 7 moments that NASCAR wanted to create to win the championship.”
To his point, there have been several of them over the years that justified the concept.
Harvick faced must-win odds back in 2015, compensating for two bad races to open the first round, and winning his way into the second round at Dover International Speedway. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
In 2017, Chase Elliott had been wrecked from the lead late at Martinsville at was denied a chance to race for the championship. Two weeks later, facing must-win odds at Phoenix, Matt Kenseth passed him with 10 laps to go and denied him again. Die by the sword, live by the sword.
More often than not, the Final Four has featured the four best drivers. What happened to Harvick in 2020 was the anomaly rather than the norm. In fact, NASCAR has shown a willingness to respond to perceived flaws within its own system.
When stages were introduced in 2016, NASCAR also introduced stage points and playoff points, giving the strongest regular season teams a significant points advantage at the start of each round.
It took an extreme aberration to eliminate Harvick and Erik Jones argues there’s entertainment in adversity.
“I think the fans have really enjoyed it,” Jones said. “You can’t deny that, and I think it’s exciting. You’ve got four guys going out and any of them can win the championship in that final race. I think that’s pretty cool. It may not be traditional. It may not be the way we’ve always done it, but I think there is constant evolution in the sport, whether it be in competition or race cars or points systems.
“You’re always trying to keep up with what’s going on in the times. Attention spans are short, right? People don’t want to sit down and watch things for a long time or even necessarily a season-long championship anymore if you’re not really a diehard race fan. So, I think it’s definitely a different format, but also an exciting one.”
Ultimately, Harvick said it best in the moment, just minutes after his elimination at Martinsville last Halloween.
“(Championships) aren’t won the same way that Earnhardt and Petty did,” Harvick said after the race. “You have to put together a few weeks and we didn’t put together these last few weeks like we needed to.
“That’s the system that we work in and it’s obviously skewed more towards entertainment than the whole year. It’s exciting to watch.”
Harvick accepted it, has moved on, and doesn’t want to hear anything else about it.
“I was over it within a week after the season ended,” Harvick said. “If the team isn’t over it, I don’t want to hear about it from any of them.
“In this business, you don’t have time to dwell on it if you’re going to do what it takes to stay good at it. You have to take things that went wrong and make them better. They know I’m wasting my breath even talking about it right.
“I’ve moved on and am ready for this season. They know I’ll get frustrated if anyone wants to dwell on last year when we’re a week away from the Daytona 500. They better have moved on, and if they haven’t, they better not talk to me about it. “
NASCAR is ready for everyone else to move on, too.
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