The Daytona 500 ended abruptly for Kevin Harvick, the No. 29 Chevrolet sent to the garage with a terminal engine failure 22 laps into Sprint Cup's most prestigious race. Harvick's record in restrictor plate races since 2007, when he won the race, made him a favorite in February and losing that opportunity so early was a devastating disappointment.
"I hate it for everyone," Harvick said. "Tough way to start the year."
Harvick also understood that a 42nd-place finish would not do permanent damage in the long march of the season. His calmness in the garage was based upon the confidence in himself and his race team to contend for the championship. Harvick was third in 2010, with three victories.
Sprint Cup returns to Daytona for Saturday's Coke Zero 400 and Harvick, who won the race a year ago, is where he thought he'd be, one of the prime contenders for the championship. He's earned the nickname "The Closer" with late moves to the front in three victories in the past 15 races and he's second in the points. With 10 races to go to the Chase, he's the third-round leader in the clubhouse with those bonus points from the victories.
Harvick has six top-5s and nine top-10s, but the best stat on his performance may be the complete record. His second worst result was 20th at Texas.
Harvick and the No. 29 are operating at a high level every week.
"I think as you look at just the 29 team -- I'm just going to speak for that particular team -- I think for me it's fun to be a part of because I've never been a part of something where the chemistry is so good," Harvick said.
"You can change things around, you can swap teams and, obviously, Gil's [crew chief Martin] been a part of my team before and the chemistry still wasn't what it is today.
"Gil does a great job with the guys and this group of guys has been together for a long time. I think that helps. The biggest thing is that it's a good group of racers. When you get a group of racers together, they don't take offense to things that you say or something that you do wrong because they're all going to do something wrong or say something wrong at a particular point, too. The chemistry of this team is great. Obviously, you always want to get faster cars and you always want the performance to be better, but I feel like when you have a team like this, even when you're off, you can still salvage something decent out of a day and I think that's what it takes to be competitive for a championship."
Harvick's ninth at Infineon was an example of a good salvage job and a good attitude.
"The car was really loose," Harvick said. "Then we got in a little wreck and tore it up even worse. As the run would go on, we would just get so loose. The car has a lot of damage on it. A lot of credit to these guys [29 crew] for getting it fixed for the strategy. It was the best ninth place finish I can ever remember."
Harvick has become "The Closer" out of necessity, but a key component is making the car better in the changing track conditions. It's an ability that separates teams that start fast and fade and teams that are in striking range in the final 20 laps.
"I think for us it's just sometimes we don't qualify great and that's just kind of been a characteristic of mine, really throughout my whole career," Harvick said. "And these races are long so there's really a lot of time to get your car right and we're able to do the things that we need to do to do that. So it's a long race and no reason to get in a hurry."
Martin and his crew have Harvick's back.
"They do a really good job with the changes to the car to be able to get the handling where it needs to be," Harvick explained. "Usually by halfway we're close to where we need to be on set-up and we can let our pit crew strategy do things that it needs to in order to get the rest of the way up there."
Harvick's win last July was the final race on the old surface. Repaving began the next day and, with an ultra-smooth surface, ushered in the two-car tandem racing style at Daytona. Harvick won in a similar style at Talladega last October, but he doesn't particularly enjoy the kind of racing a fresh surface brings.
"The worst thing in the world that happens to this sport is repaving race tracks," Harvick said. "That is the absolute worst thing you can do to make the racing bad is to pave a race track. You look at some of the race tracks that have been paved for five or six years now and I don't know if it's the type of asphalt or whatever they're doing, but the racing isn't the same that it was and the race tracks just don't get bad.
"Basically, if Daytona and Talladega would have been paved like they are now, however many years ago, and everybody would have figured out how to do it, that car would have done what we do now. It's just that there's enough grip on the race track with the way that the asphalt is to allow you to do that [tandem racing]. There's really no way to fix it as far as I'm concerned.
"Unless you just, say, go back to the no bump drafting in the corners. That's the only way you can really fix it until the grip goes away. Paving the race tracks are a killer for the racing."
Harvick has three teammates at Richard Childress Racing in Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard, which means they don't have to go looking for somebody to hook up with the two-car draft. It should be an advantage for the four-car teams of RCR, Roush Fenway and Hendrick, although it's not absolute.
Everybody needs a partner to go to the front and arrangements are often made on the track. RCR has formulated a strategy to work together.
"I think as a team we have a set strategy that we're going to go into that race with this week and see how it works," Harvick said. "Whether that's right or wrong, I don't know. We've talked about it for a couple weeks now and have a good plan."
"The Closer" would like to have a chance at the end in this Daytona race. It's an excellent opportunity for Harvick's fourth win and those bonus points for the Chase.
"We talk about it every week," Harvick said. "We want to try to gain the most bonus points that we can. Very few times this year have you seen the dominant car win the race. And I couldn't stand here and tell you the time that the dominant car actually won the race. So, for me, these races are coming down to taking chances and strategy and in order to win these races you're going to have to take those chances. So, for us, it's a weekly challenge."