By Jerry Bonkowski
There have been several surprises during the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season.
Start with Michael McDowell’s emotional Daytona 500 win, add in Kyle Larson’s career year (after missing much of last season being on suspension), and look at how the playoffs are shaping up.
This Sunday’s race at Daytona International Speedway will be the make-or-break playoff race for a number of drivers who are still on the outside looking in when it comes to playoff eligibility.
Among those still in contention: Austin Dillon, Matt DiBenedetto, Chris Buescher, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace, Chase Briscoe, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Newman, Ryan Preece, Cole Custer and Anthony Alfredo.
All any one of them has to do is a very simple thing – okay, it’s the HARDEST simple thing they’ll have to do: they just have to win Sunday and they’re in the 16-driver, 10-race playoffs.
But while I admit I’m curious to see which driver makes the playoff and which ones don’t, there is also one other driver in particular that I’ll be watching closely, both at Daytona and especially in the first three races of the playoffs (to see if he’s able to advance past and into the second round).
That’s Kevin Harvick.
How on Earth’s name has Harvick failed to win even one race thus far in 2021, especially after he won a series-high – and single-season career-high – nine races last season?
Has Harvick forgotten how to win – or for that matter, drive? Nope.
Has Harvick been kidnapped and replaced by a lookalike? Nope (not that we know, that is).
Has the equipment at Stewart-Haas Racing suddenly become sub-par compared to previous years? No (although you can at least make somewhat of an argument in that direction from a statistical standpoint, given that only one of the four SHR drivers, Aric Almirola, has won a race this season – and just one win at that).
So what has been Harvick’s problem thus far? We’d all like to know, especially Harvick.
I think I may have somewhat of an answer. But indulge me for one more moment before I get to what I’m thinking.
The good news for Harvick is that without even one win thus far, he will still make the playoffs.
He clinched his spot Sunday at Michigan. He will most likely finish the 26-race regular season in the 15th of 16 qualifying spots for the playoffs. Even if Dillon, DiBenedetto or one of the other 11 drivers still mathematically playoff-eligible wins Sunday, Harvick still makes the playoffs – and Tyler Reddick is knocked out.
It’s that simple.
Which leads me back to what I promised a moment ago that I said I’d return to. I think I may have at least somewhat of a reason why Harvick has failed to take even one checkered flag this season.
I call it the “Maybe Time Has Caught Up With Me Syndrome.” It’s when things are going along real well, and then the bottom falls out suddenly and without warning.
Hear me out on this one.
Jimmie Johnson was the greatest driver of the 2000s, there’s no question about it. He won seven Cup championships, tying him with Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the all-time Cup title wins.
Johnson also won 83 Cup races, putting him in a tie for sixth-place on the Cup Series’ all-time wins list with NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough.
Jimmie is, without question, a first-ballot selection when he becomes eligible for the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2024.
But let’s go back to the waning years of Johnson’s career. One year after earning his seventh and final Cup title, Johnson earned three more wins in the 2017 season.
And then he went totally blank. Zero. Nada. Starting with the final 23 races of 2017 and continuing through 2018, 2019 and 2020, JJ would eventually go the final 130 races of his Cup career without even one last trip to victory lane.
Is it any wonder that Johnson decided to hang it up after last season and try his luck at IndyCar racing (where he’s fared even worse than his last three-plus years in NASCAR)?
I mean, even a guy so used to success like Johnson was has a point of no return and he finally reached that point last year. Adios, NASCAR Cup, hello IndyCar.
Johnson isn’t the only driver to suffer such a fate, just the most recent. Jeff Gordon suffered a similar fate – albeit to a lesser extent – as Johnson, earning just one win in his final 51 Cup races.
Then there was Tony Stewart. He earned just two wins in his final 105 starts.
How about Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Zero wins in his last 55 career Cup starts.
Now let’s take a look at Harvick. After nine wins last year and 21 wins in total between 2018 and 2020, he has a big goose egg in the wins column for 2021. Sure, that could change in the remaining 11 races, including 10 of those being playoff contests.
And I’m hoping for the sake of Harvick and his fans, that it DOES change.
There is past precedent.
Let’s reflect back on Stewart again, this time in the 2011 season. Remember how he failed to win even once during the first 26 races, barely made the playoffs and then rattled off five wins in the 10 playoff races to capture his third and final career Cup championship?
Harvick has the ability to pull a Stewart, if you will. It’s not hard to think a guy who has one Cup championship and 58 career wins can rally at any given time and get out of one of the worst slumps of his career.
But at the same time, Harvick has been so far off the mark this season – with just six top-five and 16 top-10 finishes (his worst overall record since 2012 when he had one win, five top-fives and 14 top-10s) – that one has to wonder if he’s begun a Johnson-like slide that may not end until he retires.
What’s more, could his rough go of it this season potentially hasten retirement a season or more sooner than he had originally anticipated (and only he knows when that will be)?
Harvick turns 46 in December. He maybe has another couple of years left – notice I didn’t say “a couple of GOOD years left” because, like Johnson, there’s no guarantee that his struggles this season won’t continue into 2022 and potentially beyond until he climbs from his race car for the final time.
Gordon, Stewart and Johnson were all 45 when they called it a career, while Earnhardt was 42 when he quit. Whenever he quits, be it 46, 47, 48 or maybe even 49, Harvick will be the oldest of that group to call it a career.
But then again, maybe he’ll follow in Johnson’s footsteps in yet another way … and move to IndyCar.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski