What started in the most abrupt and solemn of ways due to the loss of a legend, and then became something legendary all its own, is now at its end. This Sunday in the NASCAR Cup Series season finale at Phoenix Raceway, Kevin Harvick will make his 826th and final Cup start as he calls it a career and retires at the end of the 2023 season.
With 60 career victories in 23 seasons, Harvick ranks 10th on NASCAR's all-time wins list and is universally regarded as one of the greatest drivers of his generation. But his legacy goes far beyond the stat sheet, as Harvick has earned a special place in the imaginations of racers and race fans for the dramatic and emotional moments that gave some of his greatest wins their substance.
Here are CBS Sports' top 10 moments of Harvick's NASCAR career, from some of his most thrilling wins in the biggest of races to the watershed moment that started his legacy.
No. 10 -- The Closer closes at Talladega
Toward the middle portion of his career and his later years at Richard Childress Racing, Kevin Harvick began to habitually earn wins in dramatic fashion by showing up at the front when it mattered and then prevailing with passes for the win in either the closing laps or the last lap outright. A couple of wins in that fashion in 2011 -- more on that in a bit -- earned him the moniker of "The Closer" from Fox Sports' Mike Joy, and it was all launched by what he did coming to the checkered flag at Talladega in spring 2010.
On an overtime restart, Harvick hooked up in a two-car draft with Jamie McMurray to push the two well clear of the pack on the final lap, leaving the two of them to settle it in the tri-oval. In what amounted to the bump-and-run at 200 mph, Harvick loosened up McMurray's car to move him off the bottom, allowing Harvick to cut to the inside and drag race McMurray to the finish line, beating him in a photo finish by .011 seconds -- the fifth-closest in track history.
Harvick's win snapped a 115-race winless streak dating back to his Daytona 500 in 2007, and more importantly launched some of his best years at RCR. In his last four years with the team, Harvick would finish third in the championship standings three times.
No. 9 -- All-Time Buschwhacking in 2006
Thanks largely to his 2001 season showing it was logistically possible for a driver to run a full season in both the NASCAR Cup Series and what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Kevin Harvick directly launched what ended up being the golden age of "Buschwhacking" -- the practice of Cup drivers double-dipping on a race weekend by racing in what is now the Xfinity Series as well. In the years that followed Harvick's 2001 Busch Series championship, more and more Cup drivers began to run extensive Busch Series schedules to the point that the Busch field would be filled with dozens and dozens of Cup drivers from week to week.
Things began to come to a head in 2006, when about a half-dozen full-time Cup drivers also ran the full Busch Series season, winning 33 of 35 races in the process. But to Harvick's credit, he had a historically dominant season: He won nine times with 23 top fives and 32 top 10s, waxing the floor with his competition to the point that he clinched the championship by Charlotte in mid-October with still a full month of the season left to run. He would end up winning the title by 824 points over Carl Edwards.
Harvick's 2006 championship was followed by five straight championships by Cup drivers in NASCAR's second-tier series, which began the process of NASCAR limiting Cup participation in NASCAR's lower series to what it is today. Beginning with 2011, NASCAR instituted a rule that drivers could only declare to earn championship points in one series.
Harvick would end up winning 47 Xfinity Series races in total to go with his two championships, and he also won 14 times in the Craftsman Truck Series while serving as a two-time champion Truck owner: NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday won the 2007 and 2009 Truck Series titles while driving for Kevin Harvick Inc.
No. 8 -- Boys' Day Out at Michigan
Midway through his Cup career, fatherhood added a new variable to Harvick's personal and professional lives as Kevin and his wife, DeLana Harvick, welcomed their first child, Keelan Harvick, in July 2012. And as Keelan Harvick grew to become a regular presence around his dad at the racetrack, the two ended up picking a place for a nice midsummer father-son tradition.
When Kevin Harvick won at Michigan in August 2018, Keelan Harvick got to grab the checkered flag before hopping into the passenger's side of the No. 4 and taking a ride with his dad to Victory Lane. Harvick won at Michigan again the next August, and the two would do so again. While COVID regulations would interrupt the tradition despite a Harvick sweep of Michigan's double-header weekend, it would return with Harvick's Michigan win in 2022 -- this time with his daughter, Piper Grace Harvick, capturing the flag and getting a ride to the winner's circle.
"He told me before the race, he was like, 'If I win today, I can get in the car again, right?' -- Well, I guess so," Harvick told NBC Sports in his post-race interview during the 2019 edition of the family tradition.
Now 11, Keelan Harvick has started a racing career of his own, and he even got to compete alongside his father in an eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race in 2021.
No. 7 -- The Cactus King
Of Kevin Harvick's 60 career Cup Series wins, nine of them -- 15 percent of his Cup wins in total -- came at Phoenix Raceway, where Harvick is the winningest driver in track history. Included in that are season sweeps in 2006 and 2014, three wins in a row from 2014 to 2015 -- including a fall 2014 win that set up his Cup championship -- and a dramatic finish in spring 2016.
After leading 139 laps on the day, Kevin Harvick would have to play defense when a caution came out with six laps to go and Harvick's team elected to stay out, leaving Harvick at a disadvantage compared to Carl Edwards, who pitted for two fresh tires for the final restart. Edwards' superior grip allowed him to make a charge on the final lap, moving Harvick up the racetrack in Turns 3 and 4 before the two traded paint all the way to the finish line.
Harvick wound up prevailing by .010 seconds in what was the closest finish in Phoenix's history. In addition to his nine wins, Harvick is also the all-time leader at Phoenix in top fives (19), top 10s (29), laps led (1596) and career starts (40).
No. 6 -- Three wins at the Brickyard
Growing up in Bakersfield, Calif., Harvick grew up idolizing Bakersfield racer and open-wheel great Rick Mears, one of just four drivers to have ever won the Indianapolis 500 four times. While Harvick's racing career would take him down the path of stock cars, Harvick would nonetheless be able to follow the path Mears laid from Bakersfield to multiple wins at Indy.
Harvick's first win at Indianapolis came in the 2003 Brickyard 400, giving him his fourth Cup win and by far the biggest in his career to that point. Harvick would go on to win NASCAR's other majors as well before adding to his Indy legacy later in his career: Harvick would win his second Brickyard 400 in 2018, then added a third for good measure in 2020 in the last Brickyard 400 prior to the race's return in 2024.
No. 5 -- The Closer closes in the Coke 600
Look away, Dale Jr. fans. The 2011 Coke 600 at Charlotte came down to fuel mileage in the closing laps, and then the race really turned on its head when Jimmie Johnson blew an engine to bring out a caution with four laps to go, setting up a green-white-checkered finish. When race leader Kasey Kahne stumbled on a restart, that cleared the way for Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- in the midst of a nearly three-year winless streak -- to take the lead.
Earnhardt seemed to be home-free with half a lap to go. But going through Turns 3 and 4, Earnhardt's car sputtered and ran out of gas. Denny Hamlin, who had been running second, also ran out of fuel -- allowing Harvick to pass both in the final corner and earn his first of two wins in NASCAR's longest race.
No. 4 -- 50th win in a surreal race
Beginning in May 2020, Kevin Harvick would play a central role in one of NASCAR's most challenging seasons ever and one of the most consequential seasons in the sport's recent history. The outbreak of COVID-19 as a global pandemic led to virtually all of the sports and entertainment industry shutting down, with NASCAR the first to resume its season after a two-month break. With the schedule in flux due to the hiatus as well as varying state government regulations, a 400-mile race at Darlington -- not part of the original schedule, but within driving distance of most NASCAR teams' shops and green-lit by the South Carolina government -- would get live events as a whole (let alone sports) started again.
With no spectators and only a bare minimum of industry personnel present, Harvick would lead 159 of 293 laps to earn the 50th win of his Cup career, launching what would be one of his most dominant seasons as he and his team were quickest to adapt to one-day shows with no practice or qualifying.
Harvick won a career-high nine times in 2020, including a return trip to Darlington for the Southern 500 where he was once again able to celebrate in front of a crowd of race fans. But circumstances in the Round of 8 -- namely missed opportunities and bad circumstances -- kept Harvick from advancing to the Championship 4 and winning a potential second Cup title.
No. 3 -- Daytona 500 triumph
The disappointment for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the 2011 Coke 600 pales in comparison to the heartbreak of Mark Martin's missed opportunity to finally win the Daytona 500 in 2007. The common denominator between those two moments? Kevin Harvick coming through on the last lap to deny them.
After going back-and-forth on retirement before settling on a part-time Cup schedule, Mark Martin -- who came close many times but never won a Cup championship -- was leading the Daytona 500 on the final lap with a chance to earn another prize that had eluded him. Harvick seemingly was not a factor in the race for the win at the white flag, but he would receive a monster push from Matt Kenseth to move the outside line all the way up toward the lead by the end of the backstretch.
Harvick shot forward after nearly being squeezed into the wall by Kyle Busch, and Martin would wash up off the bottom of the track to give Harvick the chance he needed to use his momentum to get alongside him. As the rest of the lead pack disappeared in a crash off the final corner, Harvick drag raced Martin to the checkered flag to win his first and only Daytona 500 by .020 seconds, then the closest finish in Daytona 500 history since the introduction of electronic timing and scoring.
While the 2007 finish is now the third-closest in Daytona 500 history, Harvick remains one of just three drivers ever to win the Daytona 500 in a photo finish. The inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 was won by Lee Petty in a photo finish over Johnny Beauchamp, while Denny Hamlin won the two closest races ever in 2016 and 2020.
No. 2 -- A Cup Championship
While his career at Richard Childress Racing saw him earn several opportunities to win a championship, Harvick was never quite able to get over the hump at RCR, coming up short in 2006, 2010 and 2013. Harvick would leave RCR to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, a major career move that wound up paying immediate dividends.
Paired with crew chief Rodney Childers, Harvick would make the very first elimination-style Cup Series playoffs and advance all the way to the original Championship 4, which came down to a three-lap battle between himself and Ryan Newman for the series title. Harvick never set a wheel wrong and drove away, picking up his fifth win of the 2014 season at Homestead and the Cup championship in the process.
With wins in the Daytona 500, Southern 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Brickyard 400 already in hand, Harvick's Cup title virtually completed his resume and ensured his legacy as a future NASCAR Hall of Famer.
No. 1 -- Heaven Sent to Victory Lane
There can be absolutely no examination of Kevin Harvick's legacy in NASCAR without it first being understood how he got his start as a Cup Series driver -- and how uniquely equipped Harvick ended up being to handle an impossible situation.
After being hired by Richard Childress Racing to drive for their Busch Series team in 2000, Harvick would earn three wins and a third-place finish in the series standings while also assuming the role of test driver for Dale Earnhardt's No. 3 Cup team. RCR had high hopes for Harvick to the point that he was signed to run seven Cup races in 2001 (the minimum he could run to preserve his Rookie of the Year eligibility for 2002), and his first start was to be the spring race at Atlanta in March.
Then, everything changed when Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500. The shock and commiseration of NASCAR as a whole was especially strong at RCR, but Earnhardt's team had to go on: The No. 3 was re-numbered to the next available number, No. 29, and Harvick was tabbed to fill the seat.
A 14th-place finish in his debut at Rockingham was followed by an eighth-place finish at Las Vegas, which by itself was impressive for a rookie driver on short notice driving for a grieving race team. Then came Harvick's third Cup start at Atlanta: Harvick found himself in the midst of an epic five-car battle for the win in the last 10 laps, boldly taking Jerry Nadeau and Dale Jarrett three-wide to take the lead with five laps to go.
Harvick drove away from both Nadeau and Jarrett, but not from Jeff Gordon -- Earnhardt's longtime rival -- who made a furious charge in the final two laps to drive all the way up alongside Harvick coming to the checkered flag. But it wasn't enough, and in a virtually identical finish to Earnhardt's photo finish win over Bobby Labonte in spring 2000, Harvick edged Gordon by .006 seconds to earn a seminal, defining victory that helped many heal from Earnhardt's loss and launched Harvick to superstardom as he paid tribute to the legend whose place he took.