by Ryan Isley
In sports, we always talk about athletes who have (or don’t have) the “clutch gene.” When it comes to NASCAR, the driver who has shown that gene recently has been Kevin Harvick. For the second straight season, Harvick has taken advantage of NASCAR’s new Chase for the Sprint Cup format of “win and you’re in.”
Last season, Harvick earned his spot in the Chase with a win at Phoenix in the second week of the season. He advanced from the Challenger Round to the Contender Round with two top-5s in the first three races of the Chase. He then took care of business for himself instead of hoping to advance on points by winning the second race of the Contender Round at Charlotte to advance to the Eliminator Round.
After finishing 33rd at Martinsville to start the Eliminator Round, Harvick finished second at Texas. That wouldn’t be enough to get him to the Championship Round at Homestead, however.
So what Harvick did next was go out and win at Phoenix to complete the season sweep at the track. That win advanced him to the Championship Round, where the top finisher between himself, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman would walk away with the series championship. Once again, Harvick took matters into his own hands by leading more laps than the other three drivers in the hunt and taking the checkered flag to win his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
The clutch gene isn’t really something that is new for Harvick, either.
It was Harvick who took over for Dale Earnhardt in 2001 after the accident at Daytona that took the life of NASCAR’s biggest star. Most drivers would have crumbled under the pressure, but not Harvick. He piloted the No.29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet to victory lane for Richard Childress Racing in just his third race. That was after finishing 14th and eighth in his first two races. Harvick picked up one more win in 2001 and finished with six top-5s and 16 top-10s to wind up the season ninth in the standings despite only racing 35 of the 36 races.
It took another clutch performance last week for Harvick to keep his 2015 season alive. After finishing 42nd and 21st in the first two races of the Chase this season, things were looking bleak for a Harvick championship repeat. And then Harvick engaged that clutch gene once more.
The 39-year-old driver of the No.4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet dominated the AAA 400 at Dover last weekend by leading 355 of the 400 laps and won the race to advance to the Contender Round of the Chase which begins this weekend at Charlotte. Yeah, the same Charlotte where Harvick won last season and has won twice in the last five races. In fact, Harvick has at least one win at six of the seven tracks remaining in the season.
What breaks down well for Harvick is that he has three wins at Charlotte (Contender Round) and seven wins at Phoenix (Eliminator Round), including four in a row and five of the last six at Phoenix. If he would be able to duplicate recent success at those two tracks with wins, it would set him up in the Championship Round, where he would have a chance to come through in the clutch for another championship.
The new Chase for the Sprint Cup format puts a heavy emphasis on winning. And when you have the clutch gene like Kevin Harvick, it’s hard to imagine a championship chase without the 2014 champion. While Denny Hamlin may have gotten the shoes and endorsements from Michael Jordan, it seems like Harvick has the clutch gene Jordan possessed.