NASCAR: Has Kevin Harvick suddenly changed his ‘mental capacity’?

The Kevin Harvick we saw in the round of 12 of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs was nothing like the one we saw in the round of 16.

Kevin Harvick infamously failed to qualify for the Championship 4 in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, despite leading the series with nine wins and leading the standings ahead of each of the first three rounds of the four-round, 10-race postseason.

His 2021 season was pretty much the opposite of his 2020 season. While he qualified for the playoffs, he did so not as the top seeded driver, but as the lowest (16th) seeded driver after failing to win any races or stages in the 26-race regular season. His only two playoff points came from his ninth place finish in the regular season standings.

Prior to the playoffs, we asked Harvick whether he saw this as somewhat of a plus for 2021. In 2020, his postseason proved that it isn’t all about wins and playoff points; it’s more about getting hot at the right time.

And Stewart-Haas Racing team co-owner Tony Stewart backed him to do just that this year, much like Stewart himself did back in 2011, winning five of the 10 playoff races to be crowned champion for a third time despite having had a winless regular season.

But Harvick indicated he wasn’t focused on last year in any way (even as a potential positive), and he gave a broader answer indicating that he doesn’t focus on the past at all because he doesn’t have the “mental capacity” to do so.

“I don’t really think about last week, let alone last year,” he said to Beyond the Flag. “For me, it’s a single-handed, one-week approach on what you’re focused on and what you think about. I don’t have the mental capacity to think about what might’ve happened last week, let alone what might’ve happened last year.”

Now skip forward a few weeks.

Following the round of 16, he took a different approach, one that failed miserably (at least for now).

In the round of 16 finale at Bristol Motor Speedway, contact between Harvick and Chase Elliott while battling for the lead led to Elliott cutting a tire and losing his chance at the win. While running several laps down, Elliott proceeded to hold Harvick up on the track, which aided teammate Kyle Larson in taking the lead and then the win.

This led to a heated confrontation with runner-up Harvick, who kept his helmet on, and Elliott in the pits after the race, with the frustration of the continuation of a winless season quite evident for the former.

The two continued their discussion in private, and nothing came of it over the next two races. But in the round of 12 finale at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, Harvick decided it was time to take action, and he sent the #9 Chevrolet hard into the wall exiting the infield portion of the track early in the third and final stage.

At first, it looked like it was going to work. Harvick was above the round of 8 cut line as long as William Byron wasn’t leading, and Elliott, with a severely damaged race car, was several points below it.

And for quite some time, it looked as though this would remain the case. But a caution flag caused by debris from Elliott’s damaged car put him back in the mix, and he was able to make up a number of positions and elevate himself back above the cut line.

He was also able to catch back up to Harvick on the race track.

But before he could get right up beside him, Harvick locked up going into turn one and slammed into the barrier, ending his race and his championship hopes while continuing his miserable season.

Elliott ended up several dozen points above the round of 8 cut line with a 12th place finish, despite the fact that, for several dozen laps, it looked as though the 2021 season would be the second consecutive season not to see the reigning champion get past the round of 12.

Harvick was scored in 33rd place and missed the round of 8 for the first time since the current playoff format was implemented back in 2014.

After the race, the driver of the #4 Ford refused to answer whether or not this feud was over, refusing to say whether he felt things were “even”, and he indicated that Elliott was the one who had needed a “real-life” lesson.

But you have to wonder if the driver who uttered the words “chickensh*t move” and compared his rival to a nine-year-old, all while accusing that same rival of throwing a temper tantrum (as he slammed his own helmet and said he wanted to rip someone’s head off, no less) and then proceeding to try to end his championship hopes more than three weeks later, is really going to let it go.

It wouldn’t be surprising if he prolongs it; he already has, and that attempt backfired, so “even” may not be the right word from his perspective.

Of course, maybe he won’t remember it next week. But that mental strategy suddenly seems to be out the window.