By Seth Livingstone, NASCAR Wire Service
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – Experience tells Kevin Harvick that there’s only one sure way to lock up his second consecutive NASCAR Sprint Series title. That’s to win Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).
Experience is also why his team owner, Tony Stewart, thinks Harvick is the favorite to do just that.
“I do (think he’s the favorite), mainly from the standpoint that he’d been through this scenario and through this week last year,” said Stewart at Thursday’s Championship 4 Media Day.
“Even Jeff (Gordon’s) championships were not in a format like this. They didn’t have the pressure that he faces this week. The 18 (Kyle Busch) and 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) have never been in this scenario before. Having a driver who has been through this, knows how to handle it and what to expect, that’s a big advantage in a week like this.”
Beyond that, Stewart drew comparisons between Harvick and two of the sport’s greats.
“I kind of compare him as a cross between Dale Earnhardt (Sr.) and Terry Labonte,” Stewart said. “You’ve got a guy that the circumstances don’t rattle him. It doesn’t matter what task is ahead. It doesn’t matter if they’ve had pit strategy that’s got him in the back. It just doesn’t faze him. He’s someone who has that calm, cool nature like Terry Labonte but has that aggressive nature like Dale Sr., as well.”
In reality, all Harvick has to do is finish in front of the three remaining championship contenders – Gordon, Busch and Truex – to claim his second consecutive series title. But he knows that racing to win at Homestead-Miami Speedway takes the ambiguity out of the process.
“I think that’s definitely the way you have to approach this race,” Harvick said. “Last year, you saw all four (contenders racing) 1-2-3-4 at certain points in the race. Jeff led a lot of this race and ran really well. I just believe you’re going to have to win the race to win the championship.”
Harvick did just that in 2014 to fend off Ryan Newman for the title. Strategy played a huge role, as Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers opted for four tires on the final pit stop, enabling Harvick to surge from 12th place with 16 laps to go to the lead with seven laps left.
“That was a very quick call from Rodney, on radio. He said: ‘Pit, take four tires,’” Harvick recalled. “We came out something like 14th and I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I can make up all that ground.’ But, at that point, you reboot and refocus on the things you need to focus on. We got a good restart and we were able to have it all line up.”
Harvick has been rock solid throughout his 2015 season, pacing all Sprint Cup drivers with 12 second-place finishes, 2,248 laps led, and a career-high 27 top-10 finishes in addition to his three race victories. He’s the first driver to lead 2,000 laps in consecutive seasons since Gordon in 1995-96.
He’s beaten all of the remaining challengers in 17 of the season’s first 35 races and, of the four championship-eligible drivers, only Truex owns a better driver rating at HMS (106.6-102.5).
Moreover, Harvick is making a habit of coming up big when he needs it most. In the Chase, he overcame a 42nd at Chicagoland by delivering in a must-win situation at Dover (leading 355 of 400 laps). He advanced to the Championship 4 with the 15th he needed at Talladega and nailed down his spot in the race for the championship with another dominant performance at Phoenix. Even though he didn’t win, he led 143 of 219 laps.”
No matter how it turns out, Harvick and Stewart both have a sense of the history involved in Sunday’s race, with Gordon racing for a potential fifth Sprint Cup title in his final season.
“For me, it’s an honor,” said Harvick, careful not to throw any barbs Gordon’s way on Thursday, when all four drivers shared the Diplomat Hotel stage for questions and answers. “Forever, you’ll be part of Jeff Gordon’s last race. Obviously, you want to be the guy that wins the championship, but in the end, this is a big moment when you look at what Jeff’s meant to our sport, the things he’s done and things he’s accomplished. For this to be his last race, that’s a big deal.”
For that reason, Harvick isn’t expecting to see anyone spin Gordon out of the way if it comes down to a last-lap battle for the title.
“I think a lot of guys racing in this series grew up Jeff Gordon fans in some way, shape or form,” Harvick said. “From a competitor’s standpoint, looking at the things he’s done and doors he’s opened, we’re lucky to be in this spot. I want to win the race, but you also want to be very respectful to what is one of the legends of our sport.”
Stewart, who intends to conclude his own remarkable NASCAR career next season, said he was glad that Gordon will be among those battling his driver for the title.
“It makes you feel good for Jeff and everything that he’s done for the sport to be able to go out on his terms and to be able to go into his last race with an opportunity to race for a championship,” Stewart said. “That’s what you dream of.”
Image: Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR