Kevin Harvick entered the Ford EcoBoost 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway looking to claim his second-consecutive Sprint Cup Series championship under the Stewart-Hass Racing banner.
Harvick and the No. 4 Chevrolet had some ups and downs in qualifying on Friday afternoon at the 1.5-mile oval. Harvick would show his strength by leading round one of qualifying but struggled later in round two after finishing the session 13th quickest. That would lock him into the 13th starting position for the race on Sunday after missing the final round by one spot.
Harvick said after qualifying that his car tighted up in round two.
“Round 1 was really good for us, and then we went to round 2 and just really, really tight in the next two runs that we made,” said Harvick. “You know, we just never really recovered from what we did in the first round to make it repeat. All in all, I just think our balance was too tight. We'll work on the race car and go from there.”
Harvick and the team did not show any strength in qualifying as opposed to last season when the team scored eight poles in 2014. The team started on the pole in only one race in 2015 back at the Phoenix International Raceway in March. Given that aspect of the situation, Harvick said there was no added pressure after the second round of knockout qualifying ended on Friday.
“It's really no different than any other week,” continued Harvick. “I mean, we've not qualified as well this year as we had last year, especially on some of these types of racetracks. We got one out of the three rounds, but we only got two shots at it ‑‑ well, we got three shots at it today, so it's really not anywhere too far outside of the box from where we've qualified in a lot of these races this year on these types of racetracks.”
Once the field had received the green flag – Harvick would quickly find himself running inside the top 10. By Lap 30, the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion worked his way up inside the top three and later to the lead on lap 45. Harvick would lead the field for 46 laps until pit stops came on lap 90. The Budweiser Chevrolet ran inside the top five for the rest of the race and would later finish in the runner-up spot by 1.553 seconds behind race winner Kyle Busch.
“I kept looking in the mirror, and I'm like, man, my car just doesn't absolutely feel great at all, and I never saw anybody in the mirror,” said Harvick after the race. “So I was like -- it was a handful and sliding all over the place. I think it says a lot about our team and the fact that they kept fighting. Our guys on pit road did a great job all night. We were able to maintain or gain track position all night long. Our car fired off good. We were able to go through traffic good at the beginning, but as the night went, it seemed like the 18 got better, and we just got -- we didn't get any better. We just stayed the same and never could fix the problems that we had.”
Harvick is currently the only driver to make it into the final four in back-to-back seasons since the new playoff format was implemented for the first time last season. He would join Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch in the Championship Four round of the chase.
The California driver and the racing team would find themselves in a must-win situation at the Dover International Speedway in the final race of the Challenger 16 round. Harvick and the team would avoid elimination and find themselves in victory lane and into the Contender round. By earning finishes ahead of the other Chase contenders, Harvick would race his way into the Eliminator and the Championship Four at the Homestead-Miami Speedway despite having no wins.
Harvick and the team has reasons to smile despite not winning their second consecutive championship. The team ended the season with 13 second-place finishes throughout the year. They also earned 23 top five and 28 top 10 finishes over the course of 36 races. He also became the first driver since Jeff Gordon in 1995 and 1996 to lead 2,000-plus laps in back-to-back seasons.
“It’s been a great couple of years, and I’m looking forward to next year,” said Harvick after the race.”So, it’s fun to be able to run like this. You always want to win, but I’ve learned not to get greedy. After last year, I felt like we had everything go our way, and tonight, it didn’t go our way. But, just congratulations to the No. 18 team and everything they did, and all of our guys – they’ve done a great job all year.”
The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season will be Harvick’s 16th year in the Sprint Cup Series. He has captured 31 victories, 137 top five and 257 top 10 finishes since making his debut with the Richard Childress Racing organization in 2001. It will also mark his third season with the Stewart-Haas Racing team.