How NASCAR’s ‘Closer’ is approaching his last Daytona 500

How NASCAR’s ‘Closer’ is approaching his last Daytona 500

When it comes to Daytona 500 finishes, Kevin Harvick’s 2007 duel to the stripe with Mark Martin is undoubtedly one of the best ever. Harvick won by 0.02s, the second-closest finish in the Great American Race’s history. Behind them, a huge wreck kicked off, leading to Clint Bowyer somersaulting across the finish line in flames. Thankfully, he clambered out unhurt.

This weekend, Harvick will start his last Daytona 500, as the analytical yet often-outspoken Californian retires from full-time racing to join Bowyer (a zany Kansan) in the TV booth at FOX Sports next year. And while Harvick went on to win a Cup title, and became a senior figure among the drivers, it’s that victory that he’ll be most remembered for.

“Racing against Mark Martin and beating one of the sport’s greats back to the finish line, that’s a moment in time that will always be special, not only in my career, but the sport, in general,” reflects Harvick. “I’d always heard that when you win the Daytona 500, it’ll be like no other race, and it really is.

“You win more money, and you’re always introduced as the Daytona 500 champion from that particular year. When you start the year off by winning the Daytona 500, your season’s pretty much made.”

And like all great victories, it had a major backstory…

Harvick entered the Cup level in its hottest seat – replacing Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing after the NASCAR legend was killed at the final corner of the 2001 Daytona 500. The #3 might have changed to #29, but Harvick – a Cup rookie at the time – was thrust into filling a void left by greatness.

“For me and my career, a lot of things happened backward, probably the opposite of the way they should have,” he says. “My first season in Cup, I ran every race but the Daytona 500 because of Dale Earnhardt’s death and replacing him in the car. Coming back to the Daytona 500 in 2002 was probably one of the bigger moments in my career just because of all the hype and anticipation from 2001.”

Harvick replaced Earnhardt at RCR in 2001 and almost immediately scored his first win at Atlanta in the re-numbered #29 Chevrolet

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

The hype was real, though: Harvick won his maiden Cup race in Atlanta just three weeks after Earnhardt’s death, repeating the feat later in the season at Chicagoland Speedway. He also won the Busch Series (now Nationwide) that year, in a mammoth 69-race season.

He started from the front row for his first Daytona 500 in 2002 but ended his day causing an 18-car wreck while running second.

“The Daytona 500 can get your emotions and twist them upside down and make you just crazy,” Harvick muses. “And want to do things that you know you shouldn’t do, and take risks that you know you shouldn’t take and aren’t going to work, but you’ll do them anyway just because of it being the Daytona 500.

“When you look at the names that are on it, you understand its significance – how it’s migrated from the beach to the biggest single race in our sport” Kevin Harvick

“The Daytona 500 is the biggest race you’ll ever be a part of, and it’s the biggest win you’ll ever have. It’s definitely the heart of NASCAR and what we do.”

His sole 500 win was a classic in terms of wild fortunes: his Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS suffered overheating, dropping him way back, but the team managed to rectify the issue – and with four fresh tyres fitted at the final pitstop, he was back in contention. Certainly up against Martin, who had only taken two.

“With 12 or 15 laps to go, we were 30-somethingth – a long way from the front,” he recalls. “Those last several laps, when you go back and watch the in-car video, you see all the passes and us scraping the fence and yellows and restarts, and then the push down the back straightaway from Matt Kenseth, which really is what helped us win that race.

“Then it was just a side-drafting game off Turn 4 back to the finish line, and we were in a good position to be on the right side of that. It was an exciting last 12 or 15 laps when you look back at it.”

Harvick’s victory consigned veteran Martin’s career to one of being a perennial bridesmaid at Cup level but included a tinge of controversy as the timing of the yellow flag for the huge wreck did cause some consternation. However, NASCAR decreed that the yellow only flew after Harvick had nudged his way ahead, and his victory was confirmed.

Harvick sidedrafted Martin and beat him to the line in the 2007 Daytona 500

Photo by: Motorsport Images

In claiming it, Harvick feels like it elevated his position in the sport and came as something of a relief: “I think you put a lot less pressure on yourself just because when you’re around this sport for a long time, you understand the importance of having that Harley J. Earl trophy and having your name on it. When you look at the names that are on it, you understand its significance – how it’s migrated from the beach to the biggest single race in our sport.”

It took Harvick another seven years to claim his one and only Cup title, a season after a much-needed move away from Childress’s Chevys to Tony Stewart’s and Gene Haas’s Ford squad – a feat he almost repeated a year later but just came up short on Kyle Busch. He’s twice finished runner-up in the 500 too, as well as winning the summer race at Daytona in 2010, among his 43 Cup races at the Floridian superspeedway.

“The superspeedways, in general, are difficult to have everything line up to get a win out of the weekend,” he says. “For the Daytona 500, it’s our biggest race of the year but it’s also the one race a year that you have months to prepare for. Every team in the garage has their most prepared car that shows up at the Daytona 500.

“On top of that, you have the most aggression and enthusiasm to try to take risks and do things that you normally wouldn’t do to win races because the Daytona 500 only comes once a year, and it can also make a career out of winning that race. I think it’s just different than any other and it becomes difficult to win because of all the risk-taking that you don’t see on a weekly basis.”

So what is the key to being successful in the 500? Here is how Harvick looks at it: “Controlling those emotions and controlling those expectations – controlling the week, really – is important.

“It used to be 12, 14 days of the build-up to the event – it’s a much shorter amount of time, now – but the plot goes everywhere. You have a good qualifying race, bad qualifying race. PR day, PR stories, whatever, there’s just a lot of hype and build-up that goes into the race and you can’t get caught up in it.

“As you go through the week, it’s that evolution of the enthusiasm ramping up as you get closer to the Daytona 500. You have to maintain a pretty even-keeled approach to things just because of the fact that you don’t want to be so jacked up and make a stupid move and tear up your car before you even get to the Daytona 500.

Harvick has also known plenty of disappointment at the 500, including an early crash in the 2013 event

Photo by: Russell LaBounty / NKP / Motorsport Images

“You also want to get everything that you can because you want to get the best starting position you can and the best pit selection that you can for the 500. It’s a different mentality than any other week because you practice and race and practice and race again.

“But it’s not just a race. It’s the Daytona 500. So, it’s a different type of enthusiasm headed for the green flag.”

Harvick gained his nickname ‘The Closer’ because that’s what he does best. Just ask Mark Martin

Speaking of motivation, Harvick claims his approach to his final year of full-time racing will not deviate from what has gone before.

“My mentality heading into our last Cup season is to do the exact same things we’ve done for the last 22 years,” he reckons. “That’s be competitive and make sure that every week you show up at the racetrack and do all that you can do for your teammates. We’ll be prepared just like we would be, because that’s our job.”

Harvick gained his nickname ‘The Closer’ because that’s what he does best. Just ask Mark Martin.

Harvick stresses that his mindset is no different than before as he heads into his final season of racing

Photo by: Gavin Baker / NKP / Motorsport Images

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