Is Kevin Harvick the best prospect to bring Ford a championship this year?
He made the case for himself by winning at the Sonoma Raceway on Sunday. The victory may have been his first this year, but it was also his sixth top-five finish in the last 10 races and eighth top-10 result in that span.
Harvick now stands third in the all-important regular-season standings, which pay playoff bonus points after 26 races.
With his victory, Harvick became the 10th driver to advance to the postseason and the second for Stewart-Haas Racing, now almost halfway through its first season as a Ford team. If Harvick continues to compete consistently over the second half of the season, including the 10-race playoffs, he's a strong candidate to win his second title.
In 2014, Harvick won the first championship determined by an elimination format with a victory at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"We know we're capable of winning races at any type of racetrack and confident in each other in what we do," said Harvick after his 36th career victory in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and his first on the highly technical road circuit at Sonoma. The driver from Bakersfield, Calif., believes the Stewart-Haas team is just hitting its stride after a busy off season conversion from Chevy entries to Ford.
"There's still a lot of things we don't know about our cars that we learn on a weekly basis, and that's the fun part is to know the upside potential to this whole deal," Harvick said.
A hard-nosed firebrand earlier in his career, Harvick has become more of a consummate professional after moving to Stewart-Haas in 2014. If he brings Ford a title, it would be the first for the company since 2004.
Despite its first-year status, Stewart-Haas could be considered Ford's best team. Coupled with Kurt Busch's season-opening Daytona 500 victory, Stewart-Haas now has two drivers qualified for the postseason.
Team Penske, long considered the Blue Oval's top team, has qualified only Brad Keselowski, because Joey Logano's victory in Richmond was encumbered after his Ford failed post-race examination by the R&D crew of NASCAR. One of Keselowksi's two victories came in Atlanta, where Harvick led 292 laps but got caught speeding on his last pit stop.
Team co-owner Tony Stewart, who scored his final win in NASCAR's premier Cup series at Sonoma one year ago to qualify for the Chase, said getting two cars into the postseason is a big step for his team.
"For two of the four teams right now, they can start worrying about what to do to get ready for the (playoffs) and having the ability to try different things to prepare for that," Stewart said. "That's a really important thing for our company right now, and I think we all expected that Kevin would have got it sooner than this, but there's just been some bad luck, some different venues that he's been really, really strong at that we just had some weird and bad luck that have crept into his program."
Harvick found some luck at Sonoma, where the leading Toyota of Martin Truex Jr. dropped out with engine trouble after his final pit stop, leaving the Californian with a comfortable lead. No yellow flags interrupted the run to the finish, which was uncharacteristic for the demanding circuit. In case the race went into overtime, runaway leader Harvick saved tires and fuel as the laps wound down. In the end, he cruised to the checkers ahead of SHR teammate Clint Bowyer.
The victory was one example of how the transition to Ford has turned into a positive change. The team decided to build new road racing chassis instead of converting its cars from the Chevy versions.
"We built chassis over the winter," said Harvick's crew chief, Rodney Childers. "And it wasn't the crew chiefs that all of a sudden decided, 'Hey, we've really got to get on this road course thing, we think that we can win out there.' It was the other people at the shop, the aero group and all the other guys that started pushing this thing forward. And it almost took a few weeks to realize, man, these guys are on it. They want to go out there and they want to run good."
Bowyer is now a third potential playoff candidate for Stewart-Haas. He had a fast car Sunday, but started the final 60-lap segment in 32nd position after a series of mishaps, including a spin, contact by A.J. Allmendinger, a pit road speeding penalty and unscheduled stops for repairs. Under the circumstances, his run through the field to second was impressive.
"I wish we could do this day over again," Bowyer said. "We were in the wrong place at the wrong time a couple of times. The car was really fast, but she got beat up. The guys fixed it up and we were pretty sporty there at the end."
Stewart-Haas scored its third 1-2 finish in the team's nine-year history. As for Team Penske, its Fords were not fast enough to win on speed, forcing the team to run split pit strategies that resulted in Keselowski finishing third and Logano 12th.
Harvick and Childers ran what turned out to be a perfect strategy, pitting before the mandatory cautions for the Stages 1 and 2, gaining track position while sacrificing the bonus points. It was reminiscent of Stewart's win last year, when he became the race leader due to an early final pit stop just before a caution.
There's no doubt now that Harvick has the stamina to go the distance in the championship. He won the K&N Pro Series West race on Saturday, returning to the series that helped him climb NASCAR's career ladder.
"I was actually a little nervous about that, running both races," he said. "Not the spring chicken anymore."
One of the drivers the tough-to-pass Harvick likely will have to beat to earn a title is Truex, a two-time race winner who took his 11th stage playoff bonus point at Sonoma and holds second in the standings. The Toyota driver had one of the fastest cars, but it took him two laps to pass Harvick in their duel on laps 66 and 67. Truex told his team to tell Harvick to kiss his ring, or words to that effect, after he got by.
The way Harvick and his team have been running recently, they may meet in another showdown in Homestead once the season finale is under way.