Kevin Harvick’s lengthy run at Richard Childress Racing is about to end.
From the sound of things, he’s ready for a change.
Harvick, whom it was announced earlier this year is leaving RCR – the place where his Sprint Cup Series career began in 2001 – to join Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, is already looking ahead to next season despite being sixth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and still with a mathematical shot at his first title in NASCAR’s top series.
While Harvick has enjoyed some great moments at RCR, including victories in the sport’s three crown jewels – the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Coca-Cola 600 – the native of Bakersfield, Calif., has also endured some significant and unordinary challenges along the way.
The toughest came when Harvick first joined RCR’s Cup program back in 2001. Plans for Harvick, who was running a full Nationwide Series schedule for the organization that year, to eventually move to the Sprint Cup Series fulltime, were accelerated when legendary RCR driver Dale Earnhardt died in a wreck on the final lap of that year’s Daytona 500.
Placed in a situation more difficult and awkward than most drivers will ever face, Harvick campaigned Earnhardt’s old car – repurposed as a white No. 29 Chevrolet – for the first time at Rockingham Speedway the week after the seven-time Cup champion’s death.
Harvick went on to win score two victories – including a highly emotional one at Atlanta Motor Speedway in just his third start – and finish ninth in points as a Cup rookie, despite not participating in the season’s first race. Even with the quick success, however, the emotions and pressure that came with filling Earnhardt’s seat took their toll.
And now, more than a dozen years later, the association with the late legend lingers on, Harvick says.
“The Earnhardt part of it is really not part of it that I’ve enjoyed just for the fact that that piece of it has always been tied to what you do, and it’s always part of the equation and the questions and the things that go along with the success or the failures that you have as a driver and a race team,” Harvick said during a fan forum on Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The situation Harvick will enter at Stewart-Haas couldn’t be any more different than the one he initially faced at RCR. When Harvick hops in a SHR car at Daytona for the first time next year, he won’t be the “replacement” for one of NASCAR’s all-time greatest and most beloved drivers.
“I’m looking forward to the clean start and not having that stick around with everything being related to that as to what you do on the racetrack,” he said. “But I’ve enjoyed everything that we’ve been able to accomplish at RCR, and am looking forward to a new start, as well.”
Since debuting with team owner Richard Childress’ organization, Harvick has captured 21 wins in NASCAR’s top series, along with a career-best third-place points finish on two occasions, and a Nationwide Series championship in the same year that he assumed the reins of Earnhardt’s old Cup ride.
But when the green flag waves on the 2014 season next February at Daytona, Harvick will no longer be in his familiar No. 29 Chevrolet; he’ll be behind the wheel of a No. 4 Chevrolet fielded by Stewart-Haas, where he will be part of a star-studded lineup of drivers that includes team co-owner and two-time Cup champ Tony Stewart, 2004 Cup champ and fellow SHR newcomer Kurt Busch and ultra-popular SHR returnee Danica Patrick.
But even with new teammates and a new team owner, Harvick’s move to SHR won’t be a total change of scenery.
In addition to continuing his longtime association with manufacturer Chevrolet, the driver will carry sponsorship from two companies – Budweiser and Jimmy John’s – that have backed his effort at RCR.
“Part of the intrigue of the Stewart-Haas situation for me was when I signed my contract, we had no sponsor, no team, no number, nothing, and from a contractual side, I couldn’t really be involved in any of the sponsorship stuff that was going on, so that I could focus on the racing at hand this year,” said Harvick, whose deal with SHR was formally announced in July but came as no surprise.
“It’s been an interesting time for me because in the past we have been so involved in the things that are going on. But to see Budweiser and Jimmy John’s and to have Outback (Steakhouse) come on board next year is pretty satisfying for me, and just for the fact that the sponsors have enough value in the things that we’ve done on and off the racetrack from the past to carry that forward, and to be able to represent the brands Budweiser and Jimmy John’s that we’ve represented in the past, is obviously something that I’m used to, and I’ll be able to see familiar faces and brands going forward as I go into my new position at Stewart Haas Racing.”
Harvick does, however, have a little unfinished business left at RCR, where he made it known before 2013 that this would be his final season.
“If you look and read and listen to the things that they said at the beginning of the year, we wouldn’t even be sitting in this chair right now in the Chase because everybody had kind of written us off at the beginning of the year waiting for our team to implode from within and not even having a chance to race for the championship,” Harvick said.
“For me, it’s really something that I don’t even pay attention to. I know a lot of people say that, but you really just turn the media and the opinions of the fans, you have to turn those away to stay focused on your team and the things that you do. It’s really a simple process and how you do that.”