Kevin Harvick emerged from his final Cup race at Darlington resolute, but brief with his words. And who could blame him?
After settling into winning contention in Stage 3 — with a car fast enough to get it done, and with one of the best drivers NASCAR has ever seen behind the wheel — Harvick was tagged with a controversial penalty on pit road that effectively undid his day.
How will he move forward?
“We’ll just go and put the gas pedal down,” he told reporters on Sunday, a few moments after a P19 finish in the Southern 500, the first race of his final playoff run before retiring at the end of 2023. “We’ll do the exact same thing we’ve done for 23 years.”
In many ways, Sunday’s race came down to one moment. And Harvick bore the brunt of it.
That moment came with about 50 laps to go: Harvick was running second, battling Tyler Reddick for the lead, when he opted to head down pit road. As he did, Reddick slowed down — presumably to make a last-ditch effort to make it down pit road as well — and crashed into Ryan Newman. That prompted a caution.
The caution light went off just as Harvick was a car length away from passing the pit road line. The light’s illumination meant pit road was closed.
Harvick proceeded anyway with the pit stop, later citing that he “didn’t think I could turn right” in time to avoid going down pit road. That meant a penalty for Harvick — he’d have to come down pit road again — which resulted in the driver of the 4 car being a lap down.
Harvick salvaged a P19 result and finished on the lead lap, but neither he nor the rest of his team could find solace in his place on the leaderboard, considering where they could’ve been.
Rodney Childers, the crew chief of the 4 team and longtime friend of Harvick, was blunt in his frustration post-race. It was less about Harvick’s suboptimal playoff positioning after this race — and more about Childers wanting to deliver Harvick a win in his final season, the way the all-time great deserves to be sent out, he said.
“We need to be winning races,” Childers told a few reporters on pit road Sunday night. “I could give two (expletive) what happens with all this other crap. I’ve been in the Final Four I don’t know how many times, and it ends up being a crap shoot half the time. Right now I want him to go to Victory Lane, and I want to win races with him.
“So we came here with a good car. We were strong all weekend. And it’s unfortunate.”
Had Harvick driven through pit road without stopping and getting new tires/more fuel, he wouldn’t have been penalized. But the damage of slowing to pit road speeds was already done, Childers said.
“We should’ve drove through, but we were going to be 25th no matter what,” Childers said. He added: “I mean, you’re kind of screwed either way. I don’t know what would’ve been the right thing to do.”
Kyle Larson, the ultimate victor of Sunday’s race, weighed in on the moment, too. After all, the 4 team’s penalty was the operable moment that launched him from fourth to second ahead of that caution — and one good trip down pit road was enough to give him a lead he wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of Sunday’s four-plus-hour race.
“As I was pulling down, I saw Newman spinning, so I was like, ‘I think I need to stay out,’ so I stayed out,” Larson said. “Thankfully it worked out. I guess (my Hendrick Motorsports teammate) William (Byron) was able to get back out before committing to pit road, but I’m guessing Harvick being so close, he probably didn’t have any time to react to it, and yeah, it took him out.
“For me, yes, it was pivotal because I went from now fourth to second in line, and you have a good pit stop, come out in the lead, there’s 40 something laps left, hopefully you can lead the rest of the race. And that’s what happened, so it worked out for us.”
Larson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, summed up that moment up in 11 true, heartbreaking words for Harvick — the driver who is winless to date in the final season of a career defined by victory.
“Harvick gets the lead,” Daniels said, “and I don’t think anybody passes him.”