NASCAR & Auto Racing

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick is enjoying a career-best year. Just how special could it get?

NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick has won more races in 2018 than any other year. And there’s still 13 more to run.
NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick has won more races in 2018 than any other year. And there’s still 13 more to run. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

When Kevin Harvick won the second, third and fourth races of this NASCAR season, you could start to sense it:

Something special was emanating from the No. 4 team.

Now to what degree, we didn’t know. Harvick could’ve sat on those wins all season, never stepped foot in Victory Lane the rest of 2018, and it still would’ve been a perfectly fine year.

Of course, that didn’t happen.

Instead, with Sunday’s victory at Michigan International Speedway, Harvick proved just how special this season has been. He once again leads the series in victories, but now with seven checkered flags (in just 23 races, by the way), the future Hall-of-Famer officially has won more races in 2018 than any other year. Oh yeah, and there’s still 13 more to run.

Which begs the question: Just how much better can Harvick’s career year actually get?

Just for fun, let’s say — and completely neglect reality in doing so — that Harvick doesn’t win again this year. Fine. He still finishes the year with the most victories of his storied 18-year career. He still makes the playoffs, and has enough points stockpiled that he should be able to make a run. Heck, there’s a chance he still wins the championship, especially if his Big 3 compatriots, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., stumble.

But for as strong and consistent as the No. 4 has been this year, is that really a reasonable expectation? Not hardly.

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Double-digit wins would give Kevin Harvick one of NASCAR’s all-time greatest seasons in a year when three drivers have dominated. Above, Harvick holds up a lobster in Victory Lane at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last month. Mary Schwalm AP

Instead, look for Harvick to keep grinding it out against Busch and Truex. Seemingly every time one of them wins, a different member of the trio steps up and matches them the following weekend. Last week was Harvick’s turn; this week, you’d be wise to throw money on Busch.

There’s also the matter of the remaining tracks on the schedule. Bristol and Darlington aren’t his best venues, but Indianapolis sure is, and it presents the chance to close out the regular season on a high note.

Then in the playoffs, you’ve got true wild cards in Talladega and Charlotte’s new Roval course, but otherwise? He’s won three times at Richmond and Kansas, twice at Dover and Las Vegas, once each at Martinsville, Texas and Homestead ... and then a ridiculous nine times at Phoenix.

Or in other words, even his “bad” playoff tracks are winnable.

Jeff Gordon’s 13 wins in 1998 serve as the recent standard for dominance, a lofty goal worth striving for. Harvick probably won’t quite reach that mark — Gordon had eight wins in ‘98 by this point in the season — but what about Jimmie Johnson’s 10-win campaign in 2007? Now that’s a more attainable goal.

Harvick will be in contention every week for the rest of the year, and at Phoenix, Kansas and Richmond, he should be favored. Double-digit wins would give him one of NASCAR’s all-time greatest seasons, in a year when just three drivers have dominated.

But of course, only one thing could really make this Harvick’s “best“season ever: a second Cup Series championship.

And the way he’s been running, you’d be a fool to bet against him.

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Kevin Harvick has been in contention every week. Paul Sancya AP

This week’s NASCAR race: Bristol: What you need to know.

Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race.

Distance: 500 laps, or 266.5 miles.

Where: Bristol Motor Speedway, a 0.533-mile concrete oval in Bristol, Tennessee.

When: 6:45 p.m. Saturday. (Editor’s note: Race start time was changed Friday and is still subject to change.)

TV: NBCSN.

Radio: PRN.

Last year’s winner: Kyle Busch.

Also this week: Food City 300, Xfinity Series, Bristol Motor Speedway, 7:30 p.m., Friday, NBCSN.

Worth mentioning: When Busch won the Cup Series race last season, he completed the sweep of all three national series races for that week.

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A Top 5 finish last week is encouraging for Austin Dillon ahead of the playoffs. Paul Abell AP

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not

HOT

Kevin Harvick: His seventh win last weekend officially made this his career-best season for victories — how many more can he collect?

Austin Dillon: He hasn’t made much (read: any) noise since winning the Daytona 500, but a Top 5 finish last week is encouraging ahead of the playoffs.

NOT

Jimmie Johnson: Given his spot on the playoff fringe and rapidly-dwindling margin for error, a 28th-place finish last week was the opposite of what he needed.

Kyle Larson: His consistency has waned since the start of the summer, and he no longer appears a favorite for the Championship Four.

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889; @brendanrmarks
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