Drivers Look To Close Cup Regular Season On High Note

Kevin Harvick, long ago given the nickname “Happy” Harvick, is once again in-sync with the moniker. He’s won two of the last five Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races – at New Hampshire and Michigan – and is rolling into the series Playoffs with good momentum.

Few drivers have been as good at “The Lady in Black” as Harvick in recent years. Since joining the Stewart-Haas Racing team five years ago, Harvick has won three pole positions, led 518 laps, earned five top-10 finishes – including four top-five showings. He won the 2014 race from the pole position en route to his first series championship two months later. His 518 laps led in this five-year span is 89 percent of his career total (581) in 22 starts at the track. He’s finished in the top-10 the last six straight Darlington races.

Harvick boasts 11 top-10 finishes in 22 career Darlington races – second only to Ryan Newman’s 13 top 10s. His 100.9 driver rating (since 2005) is third-best among drivers with at least 10 starts. He is the only active driver to have won the Southern 500 from the pole position.

On the year, Harvick has seven top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in the No. 4 SHR Ford including two wins and three poles. He’s ranked fifth in the standings and only Brad Keselowski (three wins), Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin (four wins each) have more victories this season.

“Any good momentum, especially from winning, is huge momentum,’’ Harvick said. “I think for us, you look at last year and probably is was the best year I’ve ever had in my career in not winning the championship. There were probably a few things that go into not winning a championship. But I think you look at the 22-car (Joey Logano) and the momentum they had going into the last 10 races and that was more important at that particular time of the year than what we had done early in the year, so it’s definitely different (this season).

“There are two parts to the season and obviously, to win the championship, you want to be hot at the right time, but winning races also makes the year more tolerable as you go through the first 26 (races), so you’d love to put it all together.’’

While Harvick is gaining steam, a few of the top contenders are losing it. For both Kyle Busch and Logano, they were at one point the easy favorites to make it to Homestead. Now, I’m not so sure.

Darlington, is a strong track for them as Brad Keselowski to get back on track and make something out of the final two races of the regular season and to enter the playoffs hot.

Keselowski, started the 2019 season with a steady, if quiet reminder that he is a former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion and with three wins in the opening 12 races of the year, ready to mount a challenge for his second Cup title.

And while he hasn’t hoisted a trophy since May, the 2012 series champion will show up at the historic Darlington (S.C.) Raceway this week as the defending winner of the iconic Bojangles’ Southern 500. He’s fresh off top-five finishes in four of the season’s last five races and led 91 laps en route to a third-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway two weeks ago, just before the series’ final off-week of the year.

In all, Keselowski has eight top-five and 13 top-10 finishes this year – including the three victories – and is ranked sixth in the standings. Only points leader Kyle Busch, 2017 series champ Martin Truex Jr. and their Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin have more wins (four) than the Team Penske driver Keselowski.

His record at Darlington makes Keselowski an absolute favorite at this track too. In addition to his win last year, in 2015, he started from the pole position, led a race-best 196 of the 367 laps and finished runner-up. He finished third in 2011 and has led laps in the last five Darlington races.

Among active drivers with at least 10 Darlington starts – only Denny Hamlin (6.2) has a better average finish than Keselowski (11.3).

What about Logano?

He finished second in this race to Keselowski last year but hasn’t had a top five finish since June 30 (Chicagoland). His last win came at Michigan on June 10.

Then there’s Busch.

Busch’s fourth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway two weeks ago in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was his fifth top 10 in the last six races. But it’s been 11 races since the four-time 2019 winner has celebrated in Victory Lane – the longest span between wins this season and the longest span between victories since 2017 when he earned his first win 21 races into the year at the second Pocono Raceway stop.

Busch began the year with a record tying 11 top-10 finishes in the opening 11 races and his 20 top 10s on the season remains best among all his competitors.

Yet the 2015 Cup champion would prefer to fully get back on track with a victory as the series finishes out the regular season with races at Darlington and then Indianapolis Motor Speedway next week before starting the 10-race Playoff swing on Sept. 15 at Las Vegas.

Busch has one victory at Darlington – in his third start in 2008 – and remains the youngest driver in history (23 years, eight days) to win at the iconic track. He’s scored nine top 10s in 14 career starts there, including three top fives. He’s finished 11th or better in the last nine races. He was runner-up to JGR teammate Denny Hamlin in 2017 and in 2013 led a dominating 265 laps only to finish sixth.

Busch is ranked among the top five in all six major statistical categories at Darlington. His 598 laps out front at the track, nicknamed, “Too Tough to Tame” is most among active drivers. He also has the most quality passes (541) and has run the most Laps in the Top 15 (4,539 laps, 88.1%)since 2005.

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