In 775 races, Kevin Harvick has amassed a championship, 58 wins, 241 top fives and 424 top 10s. But he hasn’t won in his last 64 races – since fall Bristol in 2020. oldest full-time in the Cup Series, turning 47 in December. Is Harvick’s recent performance a crisis or a signal that it might be time to consider hanging up the fire suit?
Modeling a driver’s career in order to predict the future is impossible. There are simply too many variables.
Drivers change owner, team leader and builder. The tracks change. Hours change. Add to that unexpected events like injuries or layoffs.
Although statistics cannot predict the future, they can help us understand the past so we can make more informed decisions.
The career of elite pilots follows a three-phase pattern.
- The start of a career is often a period of growth with few or even no victories. The driver can be part of a smaller team or just learning.
- During the intermediate phase, which is usually the majority of a career, the driver regularly wins. The rate at which wins accumulate may change, but the number of wins increases.
- Unless a driver quits mid-career, their stats level off as they approach retirement. There are no more wins. Then the first five places disappear. If they hang around long enough, they end up not finishing in the top 10.
The simplest example of the elite career model is Jimmie Johnson. He drove for the same team his entire career and Chad Knaus was crew chief for all of his last two seasons.
The best way to see a drivers career is a graph of cumulative wins versus competition year, like I did for Johnson below.
- Johnson had almost no warm-up period. He won three races his first full-time season.
- I drew a line through the mid-career points. His average win rate is the slope of the line. The data points fit the line quite well up to about 2015. The following points fall below where the mid-career line would predict them.
- Johnson took his last win in 2017. He ran another 131 races before retiring.
Harvick’s cumulative earnings chart is a bit more complex.
He had a longer build-up phase, with stops and starts, compared to Johnson’s immediate build-up.
Harvick won five races in 2006 and the Daytona 500 in 2007. Then he didn’t get back on winning track until the ninth race of 2010. That’s a drop of 115 races.
Of course, the problem with crises is that they cannot be identified as such until they are over.
Harvick’s career took off in 2010 and the wins continued at a steady pace despite changing owners and crew chiefs in 2014.
The last three data points on Harvick’s chart look a bit like Johnson’s plateau. The difference is that most pilots’ win total decreases to its final value. Harvick just stopped.
It’s unusual. But the past two years have been unusual, especially for Ford.
In 2021, a change in NASCAR’s inspection procedures forced Ford to change the shape of its rear wheel arches. Rodney Childers told SiriusXM NASCAR radio that the change removes 70 downforce points from the car. More importantly, he upset the balance of the car.
With a freeze on all R&D for the Gen-6 car soon to fade, Ford teams had to try to rebalance the car without any wind tunnel data.
This year, of course, the Next Gen car changed everything. It makes no sense to treat the last two years on an equal footing with previous years.
Once again, a given: although Harvick hasn’t had any wins in 2021, he’s only had one fewer P2-P5 finish than in 2020. Historically, after the win plateau, all five first places follow. This is currently not the case.
So I interpret the flatline in Harvick’s cumulative gains chart as a collapse.
Harvick’s at-a-glance season chart shows ranking and finishes. He had three DNFs: Daytona, World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, and the Bristol dirt race.
The chart also shows a recent improvement from the start of the season. Before becoming collateral damage in the Denny Hamlin–Ross Chastain feud at Pocono, Harvick was on course for his fifth top-10 finish in the past six races.
The only way for Harvick to secure a playoff spot is to win in the next five races. His team leader, Rodney Childers, is optimistic.
“Maybe we weren’t the strongest all year,” Childers said, “but you saw that year after year people managed to come together at the end of the year. and getting strong, and I know the guys here at the shop are working hard All the folks at Ford and the engine shop have made really good progress, and I feel like we’re definitely going into the right way.
Although winless, Harvick’s side have plenty of positives:
- Harvick is 10th in points, just one point below William Byron. It doesn’t help him for the playoffs, but it shows he’s competitive, even in a very tough season.
- He’s tied for fourth in the top 10 with 11 with Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson. The drivers ahead of this trio are Chase Elliott (15 top 10), Ross Chastain (14) and Christopher Bell (12).
- In the top five, Harvick ranks eighth along with Joey Logano, Daniel Suárez and Kurt Busch. Chastain has the most top-five finishes with 10.
- Kyle Busch has the most head spins with 19, but Harvick is tied for second with 18.
- Despite those three DNFs, Harvick has an average finishing position of 13.3, tied for fourth with Larson and Martin Truex Jr.
The issues separating Harvick, who has a contract until 2023, from the checkered flag revolve around speed and starting position.
- Out of 5,433 possible laps, Harvick only led 13. This puts him in 26th place compared to the other drivers. He’s not even close to being on pace to match last season’s total of 217 laps. In 2020, he led the most laps in the series: 1,531.
- Kyle Busch leads the total fastest laps with 325. Harvick has 108, which puts him 16th.
I would approach the issue of the swan song crisis differently if the other three SHR cars—or even other Fords—were ahead of Harvick. But Ford is behind the curve in 2022. Chevy has 12 wins this year (57.1%). Toyota, which fielded just six cars, won five races (23.8%), while Ford only won four (19.0%).
At the Fords, only Ryan Blaney beats Harvick’s finishing average, but not by much. Blaney arrives at 1:14 p.m., compared to 1:28 p.m. for Harvick. The graph below compares the finishing positions of the top Ford drivers to that of Elliott, which has the best average at 9.95.
The final chart highlights Harvick’s biggest weakness: the average starting position. Going back into the field not only creates more work to get to the front, but also increases the risk of being caught in an accident.
Poor qualifying is a new problem: Harvick’s average starting position this year is 19.0, up from 9.7 last year. Harvick has the worst qualifying average of any SHR car, but the best finishing average. Improving skills is key to ending the current crisis.