Before the season began, Kevin Harvick insisted, "Don’t count us out."
His NASCAR Sprint Cup victory at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night went a long way toward turning pundits into believers.
After 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing, the lame-duck driver will begin the next chapter of his racing career with Stewart-Haas Racing next year.
But for now, Harvick is pressing for his fourth consecutive Chase for the Sprint Cup appearance and his seventh Chase overall.
“Outside of the results, I feel like we’ve done that every week,” Harvick said. “I feel like our cars have performed well. I feel like we’re getting better with some things coming down the road.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s any different than any other year has been, other than you know at the end of the year everybody knows what’s going on. In the end, we all have big egos and we want to be competitive and we want to win races and do the things that it takes to go out there and fulfill that feel that you like, whether it’s in Victory Lane and you know how much work that everybody puts in. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with a lot of things to the sponsors and the people and the organization.
“It takes too much work to be mad because at this point you’re racing week in, week out, you’re testing, trying to relay the information. They’re trying to go through everything to make you better. It’s just a lot of work. I know everybody makes a big deal out of what you’re going to do next year. But, man, next year is so far away right now that you’re week-to-week.”
Considering the challenges that occurred throughout the evening — the race was slowed for 11 cautions, including the extended fourth yellow-flag period when the sprinkler system sprouted on the frontstretch — patience was the key to Harvick’s 20th career win.
When the team elected to pit on the penultimate stop for tires, Harvick quickly carved his way through the field. By Lap 381 of the scheduled 400, he passed Kurt Busch for second — and was gaining on Juan Pablo Montoya, who had led 68 laps before the final caution fell to send the race into overtime.
While the frontrunners elected to pit for fresh tires, Jeff Burton, Jamie McMurray and AJ Allmendinger stayed out for track position. But with the finale set up for a green-white-checkered finish, only Burton maintained a top-five presence as his teammate Harvick — the second car with four new tires — surged from seventh to take the lead before the white flag in Turn 3.
“That restart by him was vintage Kevin Harvick,” crew chief Gil Martin said. “That was a really, really good restart right there. That was exciting to watch.”
Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Montoya and Burton rounded out the top five.
Prior to Saturday night, Harvick’s season could be characterized as slow out of the gate. While his average finish in the first eight races was 16th, he had posted just one top-10 finish (ninth at Las Vegas) and led just one lap (at Auto Club Speedway).
But given his long-time relationship with Martin that’s been on and off since 2002, it’s not surprising that Harvick and the No. 29 team have once again found consistency.
“We’ve been through a lot," Harvick said. "I can sense when he’s frustrated. He knows when I’m frustrated. It’s not something that you take personal. Even on the weekends, you’re frustrated. By the time you get to Monday, he’s working in the shop, you know, you just got to let it go. There’s nothing you can do about it at that point, so you got to try to make the best out of it for the next week.”
Harvick’s victory on Saturday elevated the team from 11th to ninth in the points standings. He trails current leader Jimmie Johnson by 72 points. Although RCR can’t change the fact that Harvick is leaving, at least he can change perception before he goes out the door.
“We’ve had speed and we were frustrated,” Harvick said of his season prior to Saturday night. “I think all of us were frustrated, not just myself and Gil, but I think everybody on our team. You can talk till you’re blue in the face that your car is running good. People like you guys look at the results on Monday and the points, and they weren’t where we thought we should be. I think a win goes a long ways.”
You’ve got to be kidding me
Maybe having the Depend’s sponsorship on Juan Pablo Montoya’s hood was his secret weapon.
If he became too loose throughout the race, there was nothing to worry about.
But seriously, for the first time this season, Montoya actually appeared competitive. He led 67 laps and posted not only his first top five of 2013, but tied his best finish of fourth since the spring race at Martinsville in 2011.
He had a 0.613-second lead over Harvick when the final caution flag fell for Brian Vickers’ wreck in Turn 3 with four laps remaining in the race.
What was Montoya’s main emotion at the time?
"Pissed off,” he said with a laugh. “Everybody on the Depend Chevy this week did an amazing job. We had a great car. Same as last week, we had a great car. The pit crew redeemed themselves tonight. They did a great job all day, no mistakes. That is what we needed. We needed to come out of here and do with everybody smart, as he did. It is the luck of the draw. We restarted on the outside, and we were screwed."
Montoya was in complete agreement with crew chief Chris Heroy on the final pit-stop strategy to take four tires. But it doesn’t make the outcome any easier, particularly since it’s now been 95 races since Montoya’s last win. Plus, Montoya had the opportunity to prove he could win somewhere other than on a road course.
“Yeah, we made the right calls when we pitted and when we stayed out and everything, but we got that caution at the end and it was a no-brainer to take tires,” Montoya said. “And I think what hurt us is we restarted on the outside and when you restart on the outside and people got really bad tires, everything packs up. And when you’re on the outside, you can’t; you know, where are you going to jump? When you are on the inside, you can just jump to the guys.
And when Harvick went by, I tried to get to the bottom and then the No. 22 (Joey Logano) was there and I said, ‘we’ve just got to get a finish.’ Remember, before this we had six really bad weeks. I thought everybody on the Depend Chevy did a really good job and I’m just really proud of the guys.”
3: Drivers who entered Richmond with just one lap led prior to leading circuits on Saturday — Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch.
4: Positions gained in the standings by Carl Edwards, who finished sixth.
9: Top 10s for Clint Bowyer (second) in 15 starts at Richmond.
After Clint Bowyer restarted ninth on the final restart and then went on to finish second, he said, “Joey (Logano) and I were both lucky enough to be on the bottom when all hell broke loose on the restart. (Jeff) Burton was bringing us to the line pretty slow. I was like, ‘This is going to be even worse.’ Look at these highlights. Isn’t this awesome! I love this sport. I’m telling you. Whoever designed this new car, we should kiss ’em every weekend. It’s creating drama.”