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Harvick still has gas in his tank as he adapts to the next generation

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kevin Harvick, by all measurable statistics, is a fading star trying to keep up in a NASCAR that now seems more geared toward young drivers.

He’s 46, after all, and in his 22nd full NASCAR season. Harvick was winless all last year – he hasn’t actually won since the end of the 2020 season – and his 9-year-old son has a thriving racing career of his own.

A slow start to the season hasn’t helped.

It was NASCAR’s young drivers who were the quickest to adapt to the new Next Gen car, with Harvick among the veterans still trying to figure it out. He and Stewart-Haas Racing finally pulled something off last week at Richmond to score their best result in the first seven races; Harvick ran second behind Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin’s win ended a 12-race streak dating back to last season of race winners aged 30 or younger, and the 1-2 finish with Harvick showed NASCAR veterans still have a lot to do. . As he heads to Martinsville Speedway for a Saturday night race at the Virginina short track, Harvick warned not to count the No. 4 team: Harvick is committed to SHR, NASCAR and earns a second Cup Series championship.

“I like where I race. I like Stewart-Haas Racing. I like the atmosphere. I like the people,” Harvick said. “That’s really the main reason why I like doing it, especially this year. You’re with a group of people where you’re constantly solving problems. You try to fix it faster than everyone else and get to something better than everyone else to be able to win races.

“I like the core of guys I started here with. That’s why they all came here, and I guess I’d feel like I’d let them down if I didn’t go a few more years. For me, I still appreciate where this series is at, and learning about the new car isn’t a bad thing to do as you step into the future and do something different.

Harvick is in his ninth season driving the No. 4 Ford for SHR, the team that led him to their only Cup title in their debut season in 2014. He is, however, an annual title contender and went door-to-door with Hamlin throughout 2020 in what was shaping up to be an epic title battle.

Although Harvick won nine races that season, he was knocked out of the deciding race for the title the week before the championship. Last season sucked for SHR, and even though he didn’t win, Harvick still finished fifth in the final Cup standings.

This year hasn’t been terrible, but Harvick just hasn’t been as competitive as expected in the first six races of the season in NASCAR’s new car. But Harvick said he and team manager Rodney Childers expected early growing pains and had worked hard in the offseason to address issues ahead of time.

“We have taken a long time this year; the simulator, we’ve been through two tests so far,” Harvick said. “We knew going into this year that we were going to have to break some habits, some thought processes that you were going to have to break, to really understand this car, and I think we’ve done a good job with all the adversity we’ve been through so far this year.

“Martinsville will just be more of that same process, and it will be our aggressive process until we get to the winning streak.”

At 0.526 miles, Martinsville is the shortest track on the calendar and its tight turns and limited 12 degrees of incline lend themselves to physical racing. It’s also NASCAR’s oldest track and steeped in sports history.

However, it’s such a challenge that Harvick said: “I would definitely tell you it’s not a race track that I would say, ‘That’s where I want to go. It’s just not a place where I’ve had streaks.”

Indeed, he won at Martinvsille in all three NASCAR national series. But his victory in 2011 is his only Cup victory in 41 starts on the short track in Virginia. From what he’s seen of the Next Gen so far, Harvick expects a lot of bumping and banging on Saturday night.

He knows the Next Gen car can withstand contact and, had he gotten close enough to Hamlin on Sunday in Richmond, Harvick admitted he would have tried to move Hamlin for the win.

“You just have to be mentally prepared to know there will be contact during this run,” Harvick said. “You just have to try to stay as calm as possible.”

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