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Kevin Harvick turning season to forget into one worth remembering

There aren’t many who would classify 2020 as a great year.

Kevin Harvick may be the exception.

The two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has barely missed a beat despite a lengthy pause and other adjustments for the COVID-19 virus. As the expression goes, he has taken a giant lemon and made lemonade, although sometimes he still has to be reminded of all that he has achieved.

“Well, I love that it’s in the conversation of being the greatest season ever,” Harvick said Saturday after posting his ninth win of 2020 at Bristol, Tennessee, capping the first of three playoff rounds that will decide the NASCAR champion at Phoenix on Nov. 8.

If Harvick wins the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday in front of empty grandstands, then he would become just the 11th driver in NASCAR’s modern era to reach 10 wins and the first since seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in 2007.

Results in bunches

LVMS had hoped to allow in as many as 8,000 spectators but the request was rejected by Nevada governor Steve Sisolak’s office per local and state COVID restrictions. They’ll miss what could be history by Harvick.

“You look at the sport’s gurus that don’t know a lot about racing, they put these graphs up and talk about where your peak seasons are, where you’re good, where you’re bad,” Harvick said. “Where you’re good is where you have the best results, and fortunately for me, they’re coming right now.”

They have been coming in bunches since NASCAR restarted its engine in May becoming one of the first American sports to return to competition after virus shutdown in March. Harvick failed to visit victory circle in the first six races of 2020 but was ready to roll on the restart with nine wins in 23 starts.

“I don’t know if we’ll make it to 10 (wins),” said the 20-year veteran after edging reigning series champ Kyle Busch of Las Vegas for the win at Bristol. “But we’re going to keep trying to do the best we can every week, and it’s just been an unbelievable year.”

Las Vegas hasn’t been one of Harvick’s better tracks — his average finish of 15.3 in his last six starts on the intermediate oval ranks 22nd of NASCAR’s 25 tracks on his personal list — but he’s still won here twice. To use his expression, only a guru that doesn’t know a lot about racing would bet against him.

Setting the field

The confidence level of the No. 4 team is off those graphs and charts to which the 44-year-old driver from Bakersfield, California, referred.

“Yeah, I think for us you just want to keep doing what you’re doing,” Harvick said about his mindset heading into Las Vegas. “You don’t want to get out of rhythm, you don’t want to start thinking about what could happen or what did happen. You just go and do what you do on a week-to-week basis, climb in the car, drive it as hard as you can.”

Four drivers — Cole Custer, William Byron, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto — of the 16 who qualified for the playoffs were eliminated at Bristol. In addition to points leader Harvick, the other drivers still eligible for the championship are Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch.

That group has accounted for 26 of the 29 race wins so far, with Hamlin’s six and Keselowski’s four following Harvick’s nine. The dozen also has produced 10 victories at Las Vegas, with Keselowski winning three times and Logano and Truex Jr. twice each in their past six starts.

Logano was the most recent to hear cheers after holding the lead after a late restart in spring’s Pennzoil 400. DiBenedetto and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., finished second and third under caution. That race preceded the virus pandemic and was held in 70-degree weather with lots of fans in the grandstands.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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