Kevin Harvick races to top-10 finish in last ride before retiring

AP photo by Wilfredo Lee / Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick lifts his daughter Piper from his car before a NASCAR Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Oct. 22.
AP photo by Wilfredo Lee / Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick lifts his daughter Piper from his car before a NASCAR Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Oct. 22.

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kevin Harvick pulled onto pit road after his final race as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver, climbed out of his seat, grabbed a water from his 11-year-old son Keelan, slapped the boy on the back and posed a question.

"What now?" he said with a grin.

The winner of 60 Cup Series races put a coda on his 23-year career with a seventh-place finish in the season finale Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. The 47-year-old said at the beginning of the year that this would be his final season and he'll move into the Fox Sports broadcast booth for 2024.

But for one more day on a beautiful afternoon in the desert, he was a race car driver. His Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford Mustang started on the inside of the second row, complete with "Harvick" emblazoned across the hood as part of the Busch Light logo.

It's no surprise Harvick was competitive at Phoenix, which has always been one of his best tracks. He has nine Cup Series victories on the one-mile oval, and in his last 21 races at Phoenix, he never finished outside of the top 10. He even took a brief lead in his final race, passing title contender William Byron on the 93rd lap as the crowd roared from the stands.

A native of Bakersfield, California, he said it's always been a big deal to be good at a track near the West Coast.

"As you look at Phoenix, it's always just a little extra special," Harvick said. "Everyone knows how much it means to me to do good here. A lot of people have been here since the mid-90s watching me race. So you don't want to come here and suck.

"But to do that 21 times, win nine races, I'm so fortunate."

Harvick raised a toast to his crew after the race and fielded congratulations from a handful of drivers, including SHR teammate Chase Briscoe. After that, he sat on a cooler, soaking in the atmosphere that was a little celebratory but also a little bittersweet.

"It really hasn't been about wins and losses, but you never want to flop around," said Harvick, who won back-to-back races in August 2022 but hasn't been to victory lane since. "To be able to lead laps in the last race, it tells you how competitive we still are."

Three-time Cup Series champion and Hall of Famer Tony Stewart, the SHR co-owner, brought Harvick to the team in 2014. The partnership was productive immediately as Harvick won his only championship on NASCAR's top circuit in his first season and would go on to win 37 races over 10 years with the organization.

Stewart said on Saturday that he'd "lose a little sleep" thinking about Harvick's last race.

"Kevin Harvick is probably the most well-rounded driver out there," Stewart said. "Obviously, he's a great race car driver, but he knows how to build championship-winning teams, putting the right people in place, he understands the business side of it, he understands the marketing side of it.

"I would challenge anyone to find someone in the series as a driver that can do all those aspects as well as Kevin."

Harvick's departure is part of big changes for SHR heading into 2024. The team is also losing Aric Almirola, a 39-year-old who wants to scale back to a partial schedule after 12 full-time seasons and three wins in the Cup Series. Josh Berry will take over Harvick's seat in 2024 while Almirola's replacement hasn't been named.

"Aric's just calm, cool and collected all the time," Stewart said. "But he's a great family man, great husband, great father and great friend. I'm excited for both these guys, I'm excited for their next journey, but it is sad that 24 hours from now it'll all be over."

Harvick made his Cup Series debut the week after Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash in the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500. He was supposed to be eased into competition on the top level by Richard Childress Racing and mentored by seven-time champion Earnhardt but instead became his replacement in tragic circumstances.

Those early days weren't easy. Just 25 at the time, Harvick got into altercations with rivals, was combative with NASCAR officials and the media, and generally made the situation he'd inherited more difficult. Now he's a former Cup Series champion who ranks 10th on the all-time wins list.

Harvick is notoriously stoic, but even he became a little emotional thinking about more than two decades of excellence. When a reporter reminded him his two children — Keelan and his 5-year-old sister Piper — had wished him luck over the radio before the race, Harvick couldn't totally contain the emotion.

"Yeah, well, that's not normal, so they probably loved that and um ... so," he said.

Then he turned and walked away. A few tears followed and he hugged his wife, DeLana.

"For me, it's been a great ride," Harvick said. "I don't have anything to complain about."

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