Kevin Harvick, 42, has won two of the first three NASCAR races – at Atlanta and Las Vegas – of the 2018 Cup Series season and more stages than any other driver. John Bazemore AP
Kevin Harvick, 42, has won two of the first three NASCAR races – at Atlanta and Las Vegas – of the 2018 Cup Series season and more stages than any other driver. John Bazemore AP

NASCAR & Auto Racing

NASCAR’s championship favorite? Kevin Harvick, proof an old dog can learn new tricks.

March 08, 2018 06:59 AM

This article, while generally complimentary of Kevin Harvick, begins with a brief apology.

Harvick is a tremendous NASCAR driver. His 2014 championship season is proof of that. So too are his back-to-back wins these past two weekends, the second of which was his 100th NASCAR victory.

There’s just one thing. In spite of all he has accomplished in a race car, Harvick is – at least by athletic standards – old.

Sorry Kevin.

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Now, Harvick’s age (he turned 42 in December) hasn’t hindered him at all this season though. Really, his experience has been a boon.

In fact, you could say Harvick – who is the same age as Jimmie Johnson, the Cup Series’ oldest full-time driver – is proof you can teach an old dog new tricks.

That “new trick” came in 2017, when NASCAR implemented stage racing. The new race model was designed to create excitement, drama ... and to ensure that fluky one-hit drivers didn’t beat out established, consistent ones come playoff time.

No driver better understood that than Martin Truex Jr. Truex won more stages than any other driver last season, accumulating a hefty points advantage along the way. Of course, since the system was new in 2017, not every driver took advantage of that same tactic.

Truex eventually won the 2017 championship, proving his method works.

Now Harvick, is doing the same.

Three races into the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series season, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick is the current favorite to win the championship.
Terry Renna AP

Not that Harvick had a bad season in 2017. He was one of the championship four at Homestead, and based on his late-season surge (he won the third-to-last race of the year at Texas), was even considered one of the favorites to win it all. Of course he did not, and Truex did, but the point remains that Harvick was oh so close.

Now, he has closed that gap. He has seen firsthand how that strategy pays off. He has realized there is a new game, and now he is playing it.

And well.

There are 33 drivers who have run all three Cup races this season. Harvick is just one of them. Arithmetic is no journalist’s specialty, but that makes his odds ... not great, no matter how good he has been. (It should also be noted that Wednesday night, Harvick was penalized by NASCAR for an equipment issue. As a result, he had to forfeit his seven playoff points earned by virtue of his victory at Las Vegas).

Still, just three races in, we have gleaned something substantial about the way this NASCAR season, and future ones, will unfold.

Experienced drivers will recognize how beneficial stage wins are, and they will push themselves and their teams to achieve those. At least the good ones will. Harvick is one of those, and the first to truly execute that plan.

For that reason, he is the new favorite to win the 2018 Cup championship. Should he continue what he’s doing now, he might actually do it.

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks