The sleeping dragons of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series may be starting to wake up.
Kevin Harvick finally broke through to win for the first time this season, breaking a 21-race winless streak, an eternity for a team that won eight times last year.
In fact, ever since Harvick left Richard Childress Racing to join Stewart-Haas Racing with crew chief Rodney Childers in advance of the 2014 season, the case could easily be made that they are the 1a of the division alongside the 1b of Kyle Busch and the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18.
They both have a championship and have won 27 (Busch) and 23 (Harvick) races respectively during that period. Â
But while the other two members of last yearâs âBig Three,â Busch and Martin Truex Jr., have jettisoned ahead with four wins apiece this summer, Harvick was left behind with near-misses and an uphill learning curve with this new high downforce competition package.
But itâs not as if the No. 4 team was bad — they were just missing something.
“We’ve all made a ton of mistakes âŚ (and) you could go right from the beginning of the year and say, okay, well, we chose the wrong direction on the cars,” Harvick said. “But they’ve done a great job of getting the cars back with speed and performing well, and we’ve made mistakes.
“But I think in the end, everybody — like I said to several people earlier, whether our cars are slow or fast, whether I run it into the wall or he makes a call that doesn’t work out or whatever the case may be, we show up the next week, and the only thing we think about when we make the first lap on the racetrack is we have a chance to win.”
And perhaps history will just see this as a one-off.
After all, this package values track position above all else and this groupâs annual Achilles Heel has always been on pit road.
But they executed on Sunday, Childers earning his driver track position with Harvick navigating lapped traffic as well as could be expected given the extreme aero push this package generates behind leading cars.
Harvick held off a hard-charging Denny Hamlin, who had 35-lap fresher tires, and even survived a hard shot from behind.
Maybe this is the catalyst that reasserts Harvick back onto the table with his fellow âBig Threeâ members. Maybe the sleeping dragon has woken up and is about to again terrorize the Westeros that is the Cup Series garage.
HAMLIN COULDNâT HAVE DONE MUCH MORE
Sure, Denny Hamlin probably went to bed on Sunday night replaying the final lap over-and-over but that is about all he could have done without completely screwing Harvick out of the win.
Hamlin drove in deep on corner entry and pushed Harvick up the track in Turns 1 and 2. Had he stayed on the back bumper a little bit longer, he would have pushed him off the Trackbite and into the marbles, and that very well could have driven Harvick up into the wall.
Youâre probably not going to spin anyone out these days, not with a downforce package that has these cars planted onto the track, so pushing another driver onto figurative ice on a short oval is probably the closest thing a driver has to forcing the issue.
Itâs also what Harvick expected Hamlin to do.
So, it actually surprised Harvick when Hamlin allowed him to get to the bottom, because the only other recourse Hamlin had was to drive deep into the bottom and just float-up into Harvick and try to win the drag race that way.
But Hamlin already has two wins in the bag this season, Daytona and Texas, and Harvick didnât have any. So be it the mutual respect Hamlin claimed he had for Harvick after the race, or just a calculated effort not to piss off a driver that could make his playoff push a living hell, Hamlin largely accepted a runner-up based on his approach in Turns 3 and 4.
Big picture, thatâs not the worst outcome in the world for a very successful driver still looking for that legacy defining second championship.
NEW HAMPSHIRE FELT LIKE A THROWBACK
If youâre a racing purist of sorts, disgruntled by the high downforce, low horsepower competition package, Sunday was a return to a familiar product in the midst of a frustrating season that likely has you questioning your fandom.
This is projecting a little, but that sentiment is certainly more prevalent than NASCAR officials are publicly willing to admit.
With an additional 200 horsepower issued for tracks a mile or shorter, drivers were tasked with lifting off the throttle, navigating lapped traffic and throwing slide jobs thanks to the perfect application of a traction compound in the corners. It probably helped that temperatures were in the upper 90’s, the warmest race day ever recorded in New Hampshire Motor Speedway history, helping offset grip and activate the PJ1.
All told, this was the first time New Hampshire actually raced like a short track in a long time.
Harvick and Hamlin delivered the finish, the middle stage was admittedly sort of procedural, but followed a thrilling first segment that featured no shortage of action with several fast cars having to start at the back.
And naturally, the passing numbers didnât reflect the excitement of the race, because that exercise remains a generally flimsy way of judging entertainment quality.
2019: 7 leaders, 14 lead changes, 1,552 green flag passes, 698 quality passes
2018: 7 leaders, 10 lead changes, 2,144 green flag passes, 811 quality passes
2017: 6 leaders, 11 lead changes, 2,092 green flag passes, 782 quality passes
2016: 6 leaders, 13 lead changes, 1,324 green flag passes, 476 quality passes
2015: 7 leaders, 10 lead changes, 2,943 green flag passes, 819 quality passes
2014: 9 leaders, 18 lead changes, 2,285 green flag passes, 622 quality passes
Not that any of this really matters, because this package wasnât designed for New Hampshire anyway.
There are still issues with this package, even on shorter tracks and road courses, of course. The race was ultimately won by track position. There was generally no tire fall-off once the track rubbered up during the second stage and aero push is still the dirtiest word in NASCAR right now.
But for fans who still believe in the traditional principles of what a motorsport should be, Sunday was a fun day.