HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Kevin Harvick’s most cherished memory from the night of his first NASCAR championship was sitting against the track wall with his 2-year-old son. Fascinated by race debris, Keelan Harvick tossed rocks and rubber on the track down the banking. The Harvick boys each flashed two thumbs up for a photo that hangs in the family home.

“It’s one of the coolest things you’ll ever get a picture of,” Harvick said.

Three years later, Harvick is a win away from repeating the photo finish, a second championship in his sight and a second child on the way. Harvick and his wife, DeLana, are expecting in 2018.

Harvick might need to expand the trophy case before he decorates a children’s bedroom.

The native Californian has become a fixture in the championship picture under NASCAR’s winner-take-all format, making it into the final four for the third time in four years. He methodically picked off car after car to win the 2014 championship in his first year with Stewart Haas-Racing. Harvick was runner-up to Kyle Busch in 2015. He has four straight top-10 finishes headed into Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Harvick has thrived under crew chief Rodney Childers from the moment he first drove the No. 4 Chevrolet and had another sturdy season, yet without the flashes of dominance that earned him the nickname “The Closer.” He led 850 laps (he led over 2,000 in both ’14 and ’15), his two wins were the fewest since 2012 and his average finish was 11.3 — his worst since 2014 (12.9).

Oh yeah, the year he won it all.

“I’ve seen this movie before. It doesn’t end well for anyone else,” team owner Tony Stewart said. “This is 2014 Kevin Harvick.”

Harvick is as clutch as any driver and has thrived as NASCAR’s version of a Game 7 master, steeling his nerves and flourishing in the win-or-else races that kept a championship push alive.

Harvick, Busch and 2012 champion Brad Keselowski are each trying to win a second championship and favorite Martin Truex Jr. is going for his first.

Harvick is 41, Truex is 37, Keselowski is 33 and Busch is 32. Harvick said experience matters to race for the title at Homestead.

“The young guys, they did a great job, but you’ve got a 118 wins sitting here racing for a championship,” Harvick said. “Experience will always matter in this sport. Obviously, there will be a day I can’t do it. Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott are going to have great careers and they’re going to be sitting here answering these same questions 20 years from now. But experience will always matter.”

Keselowski and Truex have never won at Homestead, while Busch and Harvick scored their victories in their championship seasons. Harvick’s average finish is seventh in 16 starts, the best of the title contenders.

Harvick’s success comes in a transition year for SHR after it dumped long-time manufacturer Chevrolet in favor of Ford. SHR and Ford kicked off the transition in style when Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500.

“We opened the show at Daytona and we’re getting ready to close the show at Homestead,” Busch crew chief Tony Gibson said.

If Harvick wins, he’ll be the first driver since Stewart to win a title with more than one manufacturer. Harvick would also make Stewart-Haas Racing the first team to win in its first year with a new manufacturer since Cale Yarborough in 1978.

“I think it’s gone way better than I had anticipated,” Harvick said. “I had anticipated some pretty rough patches just because of the fact there was some extreme amount of work for Stewart-Haas Racing to do. It wasn’t from lack of effort from people in the race shop or at Ford or anything like that. It’s all new. We started building our own chassis. We brought all our engineering in house. When you cut all the bodies off and have to start over on your aero program to figure out what the cars like and don’t like, it’s just a huge undertaking.”

Harvick said he was a “late bloomer” this season, in part because of the manufacturer switch.

“Chicago, we turned it around,” Harvick said. “Charlotte, I thought we could win the championship.”

Both races were in the final 10 of NASCAR’s championship season.

At his best at the end — just the way he likes it.

“I feel like we’re here to win this championship,” he said.


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DAN GELSTON
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