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Dr. Diandra: Kevin Harvick - Slump or swan song?

The NASCAR America Motormouths crew discusses the disqualification of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch at Pocono Raceway following a post-race inspection and what it means for the integrity of NASCAR moving forward.

In 775 races, Kevin Harvick has amassed one championship, 58 wins, 241 top-five finishes and 424 top-10 finishes. But he hasn’t won in his last 64 races — since fall Bristol in 2020. And he’s the oldest full-time driver in the Cup Series, turning 47 in December. Is Harvick’s recent performance a slump or a signal that it might be time to consider hanging up the firesuit?

The data

Modeling a driver’s career with the goal of predicting the future is impossible. There are simply too many variables.

Drivers change owners, crew chiefs and manufacturers. Tracks change. Schedules change. Add to that unexpected events like injuries or firings.

Although statistics cannot predict the future, they can help us understand the past so we can make more educated decisions.

Elite drivers’ careers follow a three-phase pattern.

  • The early career is often a ramp-up period with few or even no wins. The driver might be with a smaller team or just learning.
  • During the middle phase, which is usually the majority of a career, the driver wins regularly. The rate at which wins accumulate may change, but the number of wins goes up.
  • Unless a driver quits mid-career, his or her stats plateau as they near retirement. There are no more wins. Then the top-five finishes disappear. If they hang around long enough, they eventually stop finishing in the top 10.

The most straightforward example of the elite career pattern is Jimmie Johnson. He drove for the same team his entire career, and Chad Knaus was crew chief for all but his last two seasons.

The best way to see the drivers’ career is a plot of cumulative wins vs. year of competition, as I’ve done for Johnson below.

A scatter plot of cumulative wins vs. season for Jimmie Johnson

  • Johnson had almost no warmup period. He won three races his first full-time season.
  • I drew a line through the mid-career points. His average win rate is the line’s slope. The data points fit the line pretty well until about 2015. Subsequent points fall below where the mid-career line would predict them.
  • Johnson earned his last win in 2017. He ran another 131 races before retiring.

Harvick’s cumulative-win graph is a little more complex.

A scatter plot of Kevin Harvick's cumulative wins vs. season

He had a longer ramp-up phase, with stops and starts, compared to Johnson’s immediate rise.

Harvick won five races in 2006 and the Daytona 500 in 2007. Then he didn’t return to victory lane until the ninth race of 2010. That’s a slump of 115 races.

Of course, the problem with slumps is that we can only identify them as such once they’re over.

Harvick’s career took off in 2010, and the wins continued at a steady rate despite changing owners and crew chiefs in 2014.

The last three data points on Harvick’s graph look a bit like Johnson’s plateau. The difference is that most drivers’ win total tapers to its final value. Harvick’s just stopped.

That’s unusual. But the last two years have been unusual — especially for Ford.

In 2021, a change in NASCAR’s inspection procedures forced Ford to modify their rear wheel well shapes. Rodney Childers told SiriusXM NASCAR radio that the change removed 70 counts of aerodynamic downforce from the car. More importantly, it upset the car’s balance.

With a freeze on all R&D for the soon-to-be-extinct Gen-6 car, Ford teams had to try to re-balance the car without any wind-tunnel data.

This year, of course, the Next Gen car shook up everything. It doesn’t make sense to treat the last two years on par with the years before.

Once more piece of data: Although Harvick had no wins in 2021, he had only one fewer P2-P5 finish than he had in 2020. Historically, after wins plateau, top-five finishes follow. That’s not the case at present.

I thus interpret the flatline in Harvick’s cumulative-win graph as a slump.

The diagnosis

Harvick’s season-at-a-glance graph shows rank and finishes. He’s had three DNFs: Daytona, World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway and the Bristol dirt race.

Kevin Harvick's year-at-a-glance graph, showing rank and finish for each race.

The graph also shows some recent improvement relative to earlier in the season. Before becoming collateral damage in the Denny Hamlin-Ross Chastain feud at Pocono, Harvick was on track for his fifth top-10 finish in the last six races.

The only way for Harvick to secure a playoff spot is to win in the next five races. His crew chief, Rodney Childers, is optimistic.

“Maybe we haven’t been the strongest all year,” Childers said, “but you’ve seen that year after year that people have been able to get it together at the end of the year and come on strong, and I know the guys here at the shop are working hard. All of the people at Ford and the engine shop have really made some good gains, and I feel like we’re definitely headed in the right direction.”

Although winless, Harvick’s team has a lot of positives:

  • Harvick is 10th in points, just one point below William Byron. That doesn’t help him with the playoffs, but it does show he’s competitive, even in a very challenging season.
  • He ties for fourth in top-10 finishes with 11 with Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson. The drivers ahead of this trio are Chase Elliott (15 top-10 finishes), Ross Chastain (14) and Christopher Bell (12).
  • In top-five finishes, Harvick ties for eighth with Joey Logano, Daniel Suárez and Kurt Busch. Chastain has the most top-five finishes with 10.
  • Kyle Busch has the most lead-lap finishes with 19, but Harvick is tied for second with 18.
  • Despite those three DNFs, Harvick has a 13.3 average finishing position, tied for fourth with Larson and Martin Truex Jr.

The problems separating Harvick, who has a contract through 2023, from the checkered flag revolve around speed and starting position.

  • Out of a possible 5,433 laps, Harvick has led just 13. That puts him in 26th place relative to other drivers. He’s not even close to being on pace to match last year’s season total of 217 laps. In 2020, he led the most laps of anyone in the series: 1,531.
  • Kyle Busch leads the fastest lap total with 325. Harvick has 108, which puts him 16th.

I would approach the slump versus swan song question differently if the other three SHR cars — or even other Fords — were outrunning Harvick. But Ford is behind the curve in 2022. Chevy has 12 victories this year (57.1%). Toyota, which fields only six cars, has won five races (23.8%), while Ford has won only four (19.0%).

Among Fords, only Ryan Blaney beats Harvick’s finishing position average, but not by much. Blaney comes in at 13.14, compared to Harvick’s 13.28. The graph below compares top Ford drivers’ finishing positions to that of Elliott, who has the best average finish at 9.95.

A graphic comparing the finishes of top fords vs. Kevin Harvick

The final graph highlights Harvick’s biggest weakness: average starting position. Starting back in the field not only creates more work to get to the front, it increases the chance of getting caught up in an accident.

A graphic comparing the qualifying of top Fords vs. Kevin Harvick

Poor qualifying is a new problem: Harvick’s average starting position this year is 19.0, compared to 9.7 last year. Harvick has the worst qualifying average of any of the SHR cars, but the best finishing average. Improving qualifying is critical to ending the current slump.