“Happy” Harvick has never been happier.
Kevin Harvick’s nickname most often gets uttered in irony. He exhibits a barbed wit when he believes it’s appropriate. Because he is intensely competitive, he can come off as sharp-tongued, acerbic or petulant.
But the 38-year-old Bakersfield, California, native has tempered his blunter critiques during a season that did begin shakily but Sunday could reward Harvick with a career-peak NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Harvick’s mission in the series’ drastically revamped Chase for the Cup format is simple: Finish ahead of remaining contenders Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman in the Ford EcoBoost 400 showdown at 3 p.m., and he becomes the champion.
No matter who wins the race within a race, the sport will have a first-time champion, adding to the drama that has peaked week after week in the chaotic Chase. Harvick, who needed to win at Phoenix last Sunday to avoid elimination, will take the green flag fifth and in the favorite’s role.
Recall that Harvick is the driver team owner Richard Childress plugged into the seat tragically vacated in February 2001 by the shocking death one week earlier of iconic seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500.
Harvick outdueled Jeff Gordon to win at Atlanta in only his third career start, then won again in the inaugural race at Chicagoland Speedway. He received not only instant recognition given the circumstances but also instant credibility given the results.
But he parted company with RCR after the 2013 season to drive the No.4 Budweiser Chevrolet for close friend Tony Stewart and co-owner Gene Haas. It has been a reinvigorating adventure.
“I’m as happy as I’ve ever been,” said Harvick, reveling in the freshness of a new situation and new challenge. Stewart-Haas formed a totally new team to bring Harvick aboard and being “part of the building process” has energized Harvick.
But more than that, “Happy” has delighted in spectacular results. Not only has he won four times, but also he has regularly been the fastest man on the track. He has led a stunning 2,083 laps, or one of every five through 35 races.
“You know going to the racetrack every week that you can win, [that] you’re not just hoping for a top-five finish. This is about winning races,” Harvick said.
Harvick finished third in points for long-time boss Childress three of their past four years together. But he needed to freshen his outlook.
He grinned and deflected the notion that he’s entering the “elder statesman” stage of his career. He’s gaining steam.
“I figured this was the middle of my career when I changed jobs,” he said. “I’m in the first year of my second half.”
A reasonable championship case can be made not only for Harvick, because of his 2014 dominance and mental toughness, but for Logano and Hamlin, as well. Newman, consistent and driven but winless this year, ranks as the long shot.
Hamlin’s fortunes at Homestead have mixed happiness and heartache. In 2010, he arrived with a points lead and intent on a championship only to qualify poorly and spin out of contention before the 100-mile mark.
“That was absolutely devastating for him,” team owner Joe Gibbs recalled Wednesday. “I know when we walked out of the media center [after the race], he turned to me and made a comment like, ‘I cost us the championship.’ I said, ‘Denny, you got us here.’”
But twice in the past five runnings of the Ford 400, Hamlin has steered the Gibbs team’s No.11 FedEx Toyota into victory lane, in 2009 and again last year. His record on the 1.5-mile oval stamps him as a title prospect.
Logano’s pros and cons are clear. The Penske Racing star has not been in this position before, which suggests he isn’t yet aware of how the pressures will mount.
On the other hand, Logano, 24, has posted four victories to match Harvick’s total this year, two of them in the nine Chase races. He’s on a roll.
Newman, 36 and in his first season with RCR after seven full seasons with Penske Racing and five with Stewart-Haas, has fought uphill throughout his winless season in the No.31 Caterpillar Chevrolet.
But the Purdue University graduate persists with the determination suggested by his robust, bull-shouldered build. A string of five consecutive top-10 finishes during the Chase and a controversial hit-and-run, last-lap pass of rookie Kyle Larson at Phoenix gave him his Cup title shot. The best points finish in his career has been sixth.
When four-time Cup champion and pole-position winner Jeff Gordon leads the 43-car field to the starting flag, Harvick will line up fifth, Hamlin eighth, Logano ninth and Newman 21st.