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Follow the leader: Kevin Harvick is playoff master

Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett, and Kyle Petty look ahead to the Round of 8 race at Kansas, preview the drivers who have work to do below the cutline, and predict the drivers who are potential locks for the Championship 4.

It doesn’t matter if Kevin Harvick has been the favorite or an underdog, he’s thrived in the Cup playoffs.

No driver has topped Harvick’s 11 postseason wins since the playoff format debuted in 2014. Harvick enters Sunday’s Round of 8 race at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) as a favorite. The 2014 champ has advanced to the title race three consecutive years and five times in six years.

Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing team have done what top athletes and teams in other sports do. They raise their performance in the postseason. Harvick has won 16.7% of the playoff races since 2014 compared to winning 13.2% of the regular season races during that same time.

MORE: Cup starting lineup at Kansas

That is among the reasons why the 44-year-old driver — at a time when most competitors have retired or suffered a performance dip — signed a contract extension through 2023.

“The one thing that I try to explain to all the younger racers, an extra 100,000 people on Twitter isn’t going to make you stick around longer,” said Harvick, who is about to complete his 20th full-time Cup season. “Performance on the racetrack is really the bread and butter of what we do, and no matter if you have a funny personality or you have a famous last name, it doesn’t matter.

“In the end, Danica Patrick is probably the best example that I can think of that, is just the fact of having the results on the racetrack. I think every week we’ve put a lot of pressure on ourselves to figure out why we didn’t run like we did or why we ran like we did in order to try to continue that trend forward.”

Harvick has won at least one playoff race all seven years of the format. No other driver can match that streak.

Harvick opened this year’s postseason winning at Darlington and Bristol in the first round. His second round was mediocre. Harvick finished no better than 10th in the past three races, but that round featured wildcard races at Talladega and the Charlotte Roval.

“It’s survive and advance at this particular point,” Harvick said. “You just have to see what the first week brings and then go to the next week and try to do the same thing and in the end you want to try to win. That’s the safest path forward, so hopefully we can do that and put ourselves in a good position and try to move on to Phoenix.”

NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops Night Race

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE - SEPTEMBER 19: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Light Ford, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on September 19, 2020 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Now comes a round with two 1.5-mile tracks (Kansas and Texas) and a short track (Martinsville) to set the four-driver title race field at Phoenix. Harvick has won the past three playoffs races at Texas. He won a playoff race at Kansas in 2016.

“We’re taking every week exactly like we’ve taken it all year,’’ crew chief Rodney Childers said after the Bristol win. “We haven’t changed anything because it’s the playoffs. We’re still racing to win every week, and that’s what our goal is. If you can’t win races, you’re not going to win a championship anyway.”

Others who thrive in the postseason

Harvick is not alone among the remaining playoff contenders who have excelled in the playoffs.

Joey Logano has a 7.1% winning percentage in the regular season since 2014 but sees that figure jump to 13.6% in the playoffs, helped by his second round sweep of races in 2015.

“I feel like we got a good shot at getting to the Championship 4,” Logano said after placing second last weekend at the Roval.

Martin Truex Jr. has won 8.8% of the regular season races since 2014 but has a 13.6% winning percentage in the playoffs.

Chase Elliott, who won last weekend’s Roval race, has won 3.7% of his starts in the regular season and 8.7% of his playoff starts.

“We have to have our four best races these last four races,” said Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Elliott, after last weekend’s win. “That’s kind of what it comes down to. We have to operate at our maximum potential. Certainly we’ll try to improve and do the best we can.

“Right now it’s probably about getting 100% of what you’ve got. … I think it’s going to be more about execution than developing something or coming up with some more performance.

Excelling in the Cup playoffs

A look at how Round of 8 drivers have fared in the playoffs vs. the regular season in terms of wins (since 2014 when playoff format debuted)

Kevin Harvick

16.7% winning percentage in playoffs (11 wins)

13.2% winning percentage in regular season (24 wins)

Joey Logano

13.6% winning percentage in playoffs (9 wins)

7.1% winning percentage in regular season (13 wins)

Martin Truex Jr.

13.6% winning percentage in playoffs (9 wins)

8.8% winning percentage in regular season (16 wins)

Chase Elliott

8.7% winning percentage in playoffs (4 wins)

3.7% winning percentage in regular season (5 wins)

Brad Keselowski

7.6% winning percentage in playoffs (5 wins)

10.4% winning percentage in regular season (19 wins)

Denny Hamlin

6.1% winning percentage in playoffs (4 wins)

9.4% winning percentage in regular season (17 wins)

Kurt Busch

1.5% winning percentage in playoffs (1 win)

3.9% winning percentage in regular season (7 wins)

Alex Bowman

0.0% winning percentage in playoffs (0 wins)

1.5% winning percentage in regular season (2 wins)