LAS VEGAS — Kevin Harvick’s runner-up finish in Sunday’s NASCAR Playoffs opener wasn’t quite the dominant show of strength he flexed in the previous week’s victory at Indianapolis. Instead, the hard-fought outcome was part of a weekend-long recovery effort.
Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford led three times for 47 laps in Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, holding the top spot until eventual winner Martin Truex Jr. scooted past with 20 laps remaining. The work that went into turning the tide was nearly Herculean, based on wholesale changes to improve the No. 4 car’s handling and balance.
“If you’d have told me at the end of Friday night that we were going to be in contention to win the race with 25 laps to go, I’d have laughed at you,” Harvick said. “I’d have told you we were nowhere even close, and the guys did a great job scrambling and doing everything that they could to keep changing stuff and keep making the car better. We made our car better throughout the race.”
Harvick’s comeback story has origins dating back to Friday’s two practices, when the team improved from 18th on the speed chart in first practice to seventh in the final session. By the time Saturday’s Busch Pole Qualifying rolled around, Harvick claimed the third starting spot as part of a top-four sweep by Stewart-Haas drivers after major alterations to get the No. 4 entry in proper form.
Shortly after the green flag fell Sunday, Harvick drove away from a fairly benign brush with the outside wall on Lap 17. By Lap 84 of 267, the veteran driver was in the lead for the first time.
Though Harvick nearly converted for his second straight Monster Energy Series win, crew chief Rodney Childers indicated there was plenty to take away from the first weekend in the 10-race playoffs.
“We didn’t build the right cars for here, and it was horrible when we unloaded,” Childers told NASCAR.com. “That’s something we’ve got to do better as a company. Fortunately, the 4 team is strong enough to work hard all weekend and do the right things to make the car better and have a good race, but the only way we’re going to hold (Truex) off is to have a caution at the right time and have clean race tracks and not have to pass lapped cars.
“Their cars just had way more grip than ours all weekend and that’s something that we struggled with at Darlington also, and we turned around and did the same thing there, fought through it and got a top five out of it. So honestly to finish second from where we unloaded is huge.”
Harvick carried the torch for the rest of the SHR bunch — teammate Aric Almirola secured 13th, with Daniel Suarez 20th and pole-starter Clint Bowyer fading to a 25th-place result. But it was the No. 4 team’s ability to claw through adversity — a valuable asset for championship-ready teams — that seemed to stick with Harvick the most.
“We were a 20th-place car on Friday and today we ground one out,” said Harvick, who logged his third straight top-five result. “So that’s what you have to do on the weekends where you’re not where you need to be. You’ve got to figure out how to make something out of it and we did.”