Author: Jeff Gluck
Date: Aug. 20, 2015
Joe Gibbs Racing has been getting a ton of publicity lately, and rightfully so. The team’s Toyotas have won six of the last eight races and nine overall this season, which is far more than any other team.
It’s certainly fair to say JGR’s cars will be championship contenders this fall.
But championship favorites? Let’s pump the brakes for a second. There’s still only one driver who deserves that label, and he drives a Chevrolet.
Kevin Harvick and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team are having a better season than they were last year, when Harvick won his first career championship after seeming to have the fastest car every week.
But heading into the final three races of the regular season beginning Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, Harvick has seemed a bit overlooked at times. That’s probably because he’s only won two races — and none in the past five months.
Look closer at the results from this season, though, and the defending champ is easily the favorite to repeat.
“It’s taken four of them (at JGR) to do what he’s doing,” SHR co-owner Tony Stewartsaid Tuesday. “He’s just consistent every week.”
Harvick has nine second-place finishes this season — nine! — including last week at Michigan International Speedway. If he had converted even one-third of those into victories, he’d have more wins than anyone in the series.
“If you look at how many second-place finishes Kevin has had, that can be as valuable as the wins are (in the Chase),” Stewart said.
Next, look at Harvick’s overall results. He already has two more top-five finishes (16) than he had all of last season and has tied his 2014 total with 20 top-10s. And this with 13 races still to go.
At this point, he has a legitimate shot to break Jeff Gordon’s 2007 record for the most top-10 finishes in NASCAR’s modern era (30).
Want more? Last year, Harvick had a 12.9 average finish en route to his first career title. This year, he’s averaging a finish of 7.8 — more than five spots better.
Then there are laps led — a sign of strength even if a driver doesn’t end up in victory lane. Surely, Harvick isn’t going to top the whopping 2,137 laps he led last season, right?
Well, he’s on pace. Harvick has currently led 1,406 laps this season; at this point in 2014, he had led 899.
NASCAR’s loop data also shows Harvick is having a year to remember. His current driver rating is 120.2, which would beat Jimmie Johnson’s record of 112.2 from 2009.
You get the point: By every major statistic, Harvick is exceeding his impressive performance from last year’s championship run — and not just by a little.
So does it bother Harvick that he’s been a bit under the radar despite running so well? When a reporter asked that question a few weeks ago at Pocono Raceway, Harvick immediately said he didn’t pay attention to what anyone was saying about his team.
But then he added something that might sound frightening for the competition.
“I feel like we’ll be even better when the Chase starts and all the pieces are where they need to be,” he said. “I think it’s just constantly building blocks and those mental aspects of it and whether people think we should or shouldn’t win races, it’s hard to run second, or third and lead laps and do all the things that we’ve done.
“As you look at the circumstances and the way that things shake out, you can’t force winning. But if you run up in the front all the time, you’re going to win your share.”
That’s the scary part for everyone outside the No. 4 team. Just like last year, Harvick’s biggest victories may be yet to come.
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