Ryan: 'The Closer' of Gen X, Kevin Harvick's career caps NASCAR's most successful star era

AVONDALE, Ariz. – When Kevin Harvick closes the books on his career Sunday, the book also will be closed on the greatest generation for producing Cup Series champions in NASCAR’s 75-year history.

Harvick was born in 1975, smack dab in the middle of a decade that has birthed more championships than any other.

Between Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Harvick, six Cup champions were born in the 1970s, and they have accounted for a record 17 titles.

That’s one more than the collective total of drivers born in the 1930s (a group that includes Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Ned Jarrett). The 1950s (with Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett, Terry Labonte and Alan Kulwicki) are the only other decade that can claim as many as six champions.

But time is the ultimate winner in this race, and the Super ‘70s will mark the end of something with Sunday’s 2023 season finale.

Though Johnson and Ryan Newman might continue to make sporadic starts, the last active full-time driver born in the 1970s competing at NASCAR’s top level is Harvick.

His consecutive victories at Michigan International Speedway and Richmond Raceway last year brought the decade’s total to 457 wins between only 16 drivers – an astounding 28.5 victories per winner. The next-closest average belongs to the 1930s, which has 31 drivers who accounted for 716 victories (23 per winner)

So when he takes the green flag at Phoenix Raceway for his 826th and final start, Harvick – whom Fox broadcaster Mike Joy once dubbed “The Closer” – will bring down the curtain on NASCAR’s greatest decade of drivers.

The NASCAR Hall of Fame soon will include Johnson (seven championships, including five in a row from 2006-10, plus ’13, ‘16) and already has enshrined Gordon (four titles, ’95, ’97-98, ‘01), Stewart (three, ’02, ’05, ‘11) and Kenseth (‘03). It’s only a matter of time for Busch (‘04) and Harvick (‘14).

It’s a collection of superstars who hail firmly from the cradle Generation X, a maligned strata of American society stuck between Baby Boomers and Millennials that often has been lampooned in movies and pop culture as the great bastion of slackerdom.

But this esteemed group – none of whom came from well-connected families with vast sums of money or fame -- put in the work to surpass the highly acclaimed stars they replaced.

Amid the stunning death of Dale Earnhardt and a wave of retirements (Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett and Terry Labonte), countless trend stories were written 20 years ago about whether NASCAR’s star vacuum could be filled.

Yet the so-called “Young Guns” (a moniker mercifully left in the dustbin of history with so many other NASCAR colloquialisms and cliches) instead carried the mantle to new heights.

“It’s a group of guys that came in at a great time because you got to race against the guys that were just ending their careers in the early 2000s or late ‘90s, and then you got to go through a new generation of guys that you came up with,” Harvick said of his generation Friday during an unusually introspective media availability. “There’s a number of us that went through almost 20 years of it together, and you really blocked out a whole generation in between for the most part just because you had so many guys that were so good and able to be successful.”

From a pound-for-pound perspective, it’s easy to make the case for the Class of the 1970s as NASCAR’s best.

Beyond the six champions, there also is Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. (the two-time Xfinity Series champion had 26 Cup wins), Carl Edwards (a 28-time winner and perennial Hall of Fame candidate whose career that likely would have included a title if he hadn’t retired at 37) and Ryan Newman (the 18-time winner ranks ninth all-time in pole positions). Clint Bowyer (10 victories) and Jamie McMurray (seven wins, including a Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 winner) were accomplished.

The generation even includes an F1 winner and two-time Indy 500 champion (Juan Pablo Montoya also managed two Cup road-course victories).

The stars of the ‘70s melded their boundless talents with perfect timing.

Harvick made his Cup debut a week after Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500 – which marked the dawn of NASCAR’s first national TV deal. Attendance, viewing audiences and exposure were spiking in a suddenly billion-dollar industry, and fast cash was pouring into the coffers of teams desperate for fresh blood behind the wheel.

“The sport was just out of control with money from a sponsorship standpoint, and all the team owners were looking for the next great driver,” Harvick said. “Everybody had a Busch Series team. We were at this fortunate time when the Cup Series team owners were just looking for anybody that might have a chancem and you could find funding to fund that program. All you had to do was say you were starting a program and you’d have two or three opportunities for sponsorship. When we decided that we were going go Cup racing, we had three sponsors and we had to decide which one we wanted and that was at a very unique time in this sport and I think I’m very fortunate.”

It was about more than just money, though.

The new breed of Gen X drivers also embraced the engineering explosion that enveloped NASCAR at its peak of appeal and revenue growth.

With physics and science replacing the seat-of-the-pants style that crew chiefs used for car setups, drivers were being asked to race with unconventional springs and shocks. It set off alarm bells for veterans who were accustomed to putting every nut and bolt on a chassis and had trouble adapting to breakneck speeds with suddenly unfamiliar and uncomfortable cars.

“Some of the generation of guys that were going out when we were coming in, they were very stuck on, ‘These are the springs that we need to run in the car. You can’t do this and you can’t do that,’ ” Harvick said. “And they quickly got left behind. I remember that like it was yesterday, and you look back at those guys and you’re like, ‘Man, if they would have just followed the evolution of the sport and let it come to them, they would have still driven it fine.’ They just wouldn’t have known what springs and shocks were on the car and whether it was high or low. It still went around the racetrack.

“It just went around the racetrack faster, but that’s what we do.”

It’s what now is being done by the Millennial and Gen Z drivers who have been raised in an immersive virtual world of iRacing and simulation. The digital has become dominant, which makes it trickier for the analog 40somethings who grew up in the pre-Internet latchkey kid world of rotary dial phones and TV rabbit ears.

Harvick, the father of two kids ages 11 and 5, loves the challenge of “evolve or die” in the engineering-driven evolution process “that is never going to end, and you always have to keep your head up and eyes open, or you’re going to miss something and get left behind.

“The days of knowing everything that’s in your car and knowing how it works, you almost need to forget that,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. “Because you’re just interrupting the process of all the smart people that work on the car to make it go faster and find something new and make a better part or piece, so there’s just a lot of things that have changed and I love that part of it. I love the evolution of watching it change, and that’s always been something that I’ve taken pride in being able to be a part of that change and still be successful.”

Now the Bakersfield, California, native will try to build on that NASCAR stature in a new arena. The next generation will have Harvick’s rapt attention as he moves to the booth as a Fox Sports analyst who believes the future is in good hands.

Sunday’s Championship 4 will be the youngest in the format’s 10-year history, and NASCAR is guaranteed to crown a champion born between 1992-97.

“Guys like Joey Logano are going to be great leaders,” Harvick said, referencing the defending series champion (and the first born in the 1990s to win a title). “They already are. You see some of the younger guys start to speak up in the meetings, and I can’t wait to continue to be a part of those meetings as we go forward and listen to it evolve and grow and change and see who the new leaders become because that’s the process, and that’s how it works.”

Few made that work (or understood the concept) better than the man nicknamed “Happy” for an infamously short fuse that belies his measured, methodical and patient approach as .

So here’s to Harvick and his esteemed middle-aged peers.

In NASCAR, Gen X forever will be Grade A.

Winning Cup drivers born between 1970-79

  • Jeff Gordon, four championships, 93 victories

  • Jimmie Johnson, seven championships, 83 victories

  • Kevin Harvick, one championship, 60 victories

  • Tony Stewart, three championships, 49 victories

  • Matt Kenseth, one championship, 39 victories

  • Kurt Busch, one championship, 34 victories

  • Carl Edwards, 28 victories

  • Dale Earnhardt Jr., 26 victories

  • Ryan Newman, 18 victories

  • Clint Bowyer, 10 victories

  • Jamie McMurray, 7 victories

  • Elliott Sadler, 3 victories

  • Marcos Ambrose, 2 victories

  • Juan Pablo Montoya, 2 victories

  • David Reuitmann, 2 victories

  • Casey Mears, 1 victory