AVONDALE, Ariz. — Tears were shed. Tight hugs were given. Beer was consumed. Kevin Harvick had an emotional whirlwind final Cup Series race at his best racetrack on Sunday afternoon at Phoenix Raceway.
In January, Harvick announced he is retiring at the end of the 2023 season. The 2014 Cup champion’s future was laid out. He would do one final hoorah with the No. 4 team, telling a 23-year career story arch over the span of nine months before joining the NASCAR on Fox booth in 2024.
Two hundred and ninety-six days had passed since the 2014 champion made the declaration. Championship Sunday was underway at Phoenix and Harvick was getting tributes galore. It began in the driver’s meeting, when NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Competition Elton Sawyer gave a briefing. A several-minute tribute was played to honor Harvick’s monumental achievements. Among them was his first career win at Atlanta Motor Speedway in just his third start; edging out Mark Martin in the 2007 Daytona 500; and winning the championship in the inaugural year of its current playoff format.
Harvick’s fellow competitors celebrated his career with a standing ovation. Harvick’s dark tinted sunglasses hid the tears. Before the 36 drivers departed for driver introductions, they stood with Harvick for a group photo.
When Harvick took the track for pace laps for his sendoff race, he had a couple of familiar voices on his No. 4 team radio. Harvick’s 11-year-old son Keelan keyed the radio and said, “Hey dad, I am so proud of you and you’ve had a great career. Finish it off with one more.” His 5-year-old daughter Piper then took the mic and screamed, “Good luck, dad.”
“That’s not normal,” Harvick said, beginning to choke up. “I know that they probably loved that.”
When the 312-lap race began, Harvick’s third-place qualifying effort was his best starting position since the Coca-Cola 600 in May. However, that crown jewel weekend didn’t have qualifying as the session was canceled due to inclement weather.
During the first stint of the race, it was clear that Harvick’s car was capable of competing for the win. On lap 93, he passed William Byron for the first lead change in the race. The No. 4 car led 23 laps, his second highest amount of the season.
As the Championship 4 teams worked on their cars and other drivers, such as eventual race winner Ross Chastain, Chris Buescher and Martin Truex Jr. raced through the field, Harvick faded slightly. Aside from green flag pit stops, however, he was never outside of the top 10 all race long.
When the checkered flag flew, the nine-time Phoenix master crossed the finish-line in seventh position. He ended his illustrious career with a record 21-race top-10 streak at one track. The emotions were gone. When he exited the No. 4 Busch Light car for the final time, he asked Keelan, “What’s next?”
“I feel relieved now,” Harvick said. “The emotions are over at this particular point. This was a tough week with everything going on and lots to do. It’s been a great ride, so I don’t have anything to complain about and I’m just happy that we got to this point and closed the book on our own.”
Crew chief Rodney Childers stated earlier in the weekend that during a team dinner leading into the Phoenix race, Harvick got nearly one sentence out before breaking down in tears. The final week with his No. 4 team approached rapidly.
When Harvick departed the driver’s seat, that same team was waiting for him on pit road. His fellow Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Chase Briscoe and Ryan Preece surveyed the scene before Tyler Reddick and Joey Logano each shared a special moment with the 61-time winner. A tearful Tony Stewart hugged his driver and friend tightly. His wife DeLana and their two children commemorated the moment.
Kevin Harvick climbs out of the No. 4 car for the final time. pic.twitter.com/T5ZrG1v6I7
— Dustin Albino (@DustinAlbino) November 6, 2023
“I’d rather walk away competitive than walk around looking for a paycheck,” Harvick said. “That’s always been one of my goals was to walk out as competitive as possible – and we did that. I wouldn’t change anything.”
With the next couple of years in motion, Harvick will hop on calls with Fox Sports next week about plans for the 2024 season, as he joins Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer in the broadcast booth for the first half of the season. That’s a gig he’s not taking lightly.
“I still think the responsibility is just as big to go up there and try to give the fans as much as possible and do a good job for FOX and everyone with this sport to tell the best story that we can,” he said. “We have a lot of great drivers, a lot of great personalities and I hope everybody gets to see that.”
In Harvick’s immediate future, he can reflect on a marvelous career. He retires, ranking 10th on the all-time win’s list. He finished with a top-five percentage north of 30 in 826 career starts and a top-10 percentage of 53.7%.
“We balanced a lot this year,” Harvick said. “To be able to balance all that and walk away at the last race and be competitive says a lot about the people we have around me and the drive we have to do good.”
Harvick has always been a talented driver – it was noticeable since he beat Jeff Gordon in his third Cup start after taking over for arguably the sport’s greatest driver Dale Earnhardt. Harvick was the definition of consistency throughout his career, winning at least one race in 18 seasons. He’s on the short list consisting of eight drivers to win a race more than 20 years after his first. Ironically, it’s the same exact span as Gordon at 21 years, five months and three days.