Entering playoff cut race, Kevin Harvick looks to keep grinding

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For Kevin Harvick to advance to the next round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, he and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team must keep doing what they’ve been doing.

Stay on the grind.

Harvick remains winless after last season’s nine-win campaign. But he’s also one of two drivers (Denny Hamlin) with top-10 finishes in all five playoff races so far.

With only two playoff points to his name, those steady results are what’s keeping him in the game. He enters Sunday’s Round of 12 eliminator at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC) nine points behind the cutline to advance.

It’s not the most ideal situation. It hasn’t been the most ideal season.

But to Harvick, 2021 is nothing compared to what he faced in his early years.

After the death of Dale Earnhardt at the 2001 Daytona 500, a 25-year-old Harvick replaced him at Richard Childress Racing and entered a blinding spotlight. In his third race with the renumbered No. 29 team, Harvick won at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He went on to win Cup rookie of the year honors.

But his sophomore season was disappointing. He finished a career-worst 21st in points that season and was suspended one race by NASCAR for actions after he was parked in a Truck race at Martinsville. Bright spots, such as a lone win that season at Chicagoland Speedway, were hard to come by.

“A lot of people who watch and cover (NASCAR) in this particular period forget 20 years ago, so it’s hard to explain to people some of the things that you’ve been through,” Harvick said Friday in a media teleconference.

“I feel like my first press conference was the biggest one I’ll ever do. The first year was the most stressful I’ll ever have. 2002 was a horrendous year and somehow, we won a race that year on the track position game. We put ourselves in the right spot.

“I personally have been through some pretty tough years, and this one has just been a struggle because we’ve had to work so hard to get everything we have.”

But the grind is still paying off.

Harvick’s 21 top-10 finishes this season are second-most behind Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin (22). Harvick’s average finish of 10.6 is ranks behind only Hamlin (8.3) and Larson (10.0).

In the playoffs, Harvick has been even more consistent. He’s posted an average finish of 6.4 (behind only Hamlin’s 4.0 and Martin Truex Jr.‘s 5.6) and earned 194 points (behind only Hamlin’s 251 and Larson’s 196).

Looking back on the season, Harvick said he feels that the early balance issues his cars had weren’t as bad as he and his No. 4 team initially thought.

Once his team figured out how to get the cars closer to where they needed to be at the start of races, he could focus on getting the most out of them and move on to the next race.

“It’s not the way we usually race … Always on offense,” Harvick admits. “Going forward and trying to do those things, you have moments and time periods of the race that you can do that.

“But you have to be very methodical about the things you do on pit road, with the changes on the car or in the car. We’ve all done a good job with that.”

They must do it again on the Roval, where Harvick’s best finish is third in 2019. However, over his last five road course races, he’s only posted an average finish of 21.6.

But to Harvick, his strategy for Sunday will simply dictate itself through how the race breaks in regards to his track position, timings of cautions, and other factors. He’ll assess the situation and go from there.

Furthermore, at age 45 and with a 2014 Cup title on his mantle, he sees no need to stress out and change his mindset for this race. Or any race.

“I’ve done it for so long that it’s just part of what you do and you try to race the same way all year and not say ‘Okay, the playoffs have started, let’s change what we’re doing at this particular point and try to go in a different direction,'” Harvick said. “Because that kind of messes up the rhythm of the things you’re used to doing.”

“I’m kind of a creature of habit (and) do the same things on a weekly basis. It’s just another race. I know that sounds cliche and boring … but you just have to go out there and do what you do the best you can and see where it falls.”