Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick look toward playoffs after winless regular season


Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin combined to win 44% of the races – 16 of 36 – last year in the NASCAR Cup Series.

This year, both drivers are winless entering the playoffs, which begin Sunday at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

It’s a big surprise for sure. But the goose eggs don’t tell the whole story.

Let’s start with Hamlin. He may have lost out to Kyle Larson for the regular season championship, but he still carries a series-best average finish of 9.1. Additionally, his 13 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes rank second in the series.

“We’ve been very good and very consistent,” Hamlin said Tuesday during Cup playoff media day. “We’ve been in the top five, and in many positions to win – I mean, just short of two weeks ago, right? We’re always in position to win but things haven’t fallen our way. We’ve gotten crashed. We’ve ran out of gas.

“There’s been a lot of different things that have taken us out of it. But we’re not going to continue to be up front every single week and not win races.”

Perhaps that breakthrough can finally happen at Darlington, which has been one of Hamlin’s stronger tracks historically.

Hamlin, a three-time winner at Darlington, has posted three top-five finishes in his last four races there. That includes a win in the second race of the May 2020 “doubleheader.”

On Tuesday, Hamlin said that he and his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team would much prefer to advance in the playoffs by winning. But he also acknowledged that carrying over their consistency from the regular season would give them another option.

“Our path is clear,” said Hamlin, who starts the playoffs as the seventh seed (2,015 points). “We need to win and if we can’t, our performance is still good enough to make it in a different way.

“There’s several different avenues, and we’ll exploit each way given our situation in that moment.”

Unlike Hamlin, Harvick has not always had consistent speed from his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford this season.

As noted earlier this season by his crew chief Rodney Childers, inspection changes led to a major drop in rear downforce across all of SHR’s cars.

The subsequent balance issues have remained an obstacle all season. Entering last week’s race at Daytona, team co-owner Tony Stewart said “we don’t know what’s going wrong.”

But Harvick said Tuesday that, “to a certain degree,” he disagreed with Stewart.

“We’ve made our cars better,” he said. “I think it’s a fundamental problem with some of the numbers being put into the tools that we use. I don’t think they know exactly what those numbers are. We know where the problem lies, and they’re working to try to fix it.”

Harvick declined to elaborate on what the problem was.

Whatever it may be, Harvick, Childers and the No. 4 team have had to grind for results instead of relying on the signature speed that took them to a series-best nine wins in 2020.

There’s been some success. Harvick’s 16 top-10 finishes is tied for third in Cup with three other drivers.

A lack of playoff points means Harvick will start the playoffs as the 16th seed (2,002 points). But he and his team are ready to keep digging.

“We’ve still got some work to do with some things on the balance side of the car to start these races, but, in the end, our team has done a great job and those numbers could have been a lot better if it weren’t for three or four ill-timed accidents at the end of a few of the races,” he said.

“You obviously want to win, but some years just don’t go exactly how you want them to go, and I think those are the years that you’ve got to dig down and do the things that our guys have done this year.

“(You’ve) gotta be in it to win it, and we’ve given ourselves a chance to see where it all falls in the end.”