While some drivers and teams bid farewell until the Dec. 6 Sprint Cup banquet in Las Vegas or the NASCAR test at Charlotte Motor Speedway the week after, for others, Homestead-Miami Speedway signified the end of an era — or just the end of the road.
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After 13 seasons, Kevin Harvick is moving on from Richard Childress Racing. It was leaked last year that he would drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Still, chronicling the nearly 38-year-old’s journey from an upstart driver to a team owner and more recently a father provided plenty of fodder throughout those years.
As Richard Childress said following their 23rd and final win together last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, “we’re like family” — albeit a dysfunctional one.
“You spend a lot of time with each other at the track, so you’re going to have your spats and stuff, and just got to make it work,” Childress added.
And make it work they did. After the tragic loss of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500, the 25-year-old Bakersfield, Calif.-native was asked to drive the renumbered No. 29 Chevy and carry the team for the rest of the year. Harvick, who was transitioning into the Busch Series when he was enlisted to fill in, won in his third Cup start. The cathartic victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway allowed the healing process to begin. Harvick won again at Chicagoland Speedway and, despite missing the season opener, ran as high as seventh in the points that season before finishing ninth in the standings.
Entering Homestead-Miami Speedway this year, Harvick still had a shot — although a slim one — at the title. That didn’t faze the team. As Harvick said, the pundits had “written us off” before the season started. Before the race started, Harvick told the crew, “Love every one of you, let’s have some fun.” Childress thanked his driver and replied, “Who’d ever thought in 2001 we’d still be here running for a championship? Let’s close it with a win!”
Harvick led eight laps, lost the handling on his car but salvaged a top 10 — the 209th of his career in the No. 29 Chevy. The next time fans see “Happy” in a race car, it will be the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy.
With four wins, Harvick barely missed his season-high total of five under the direction of crew chief Gil Martin. As solid as this team has been all season, there was still talk of regret. But if Harvick, who has finished third in the standings three of the past four seasons (and do any Earnhardt fans see the irony in that?), never took the opportunity to find out if there was a better situation for him outside of RCR, that might be harder to accept.
“I think the year has gone very well,” Harvick said. “From a performance standpoint, especially, I think everybody’s done a great job. You just look back, and you’re happy about everything that’s gone on, the things that you’ve been able to accomplish.
“You can look at Richard, know that both sides have been good for each other. I think there’s definitely a mutual respect for the things that we’ve done for each other, whether you’re just getting a shot, winning races, me stepping in and doing the things that we did for the company as the company was in a tough transition point with Dale and his accident.
“There’s a lot to be proud of and a lot to be happy about, a lot that we’ve been able to accomplish. Hopefully, it’s a good first half of my career and the second half goes just as well.”
Here is a helpful scorecard for other driver moves in 2014, in numerical order:
No. 7 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevy: Dave Blaney is being replaced by Nationwide Series driver Michael Annett, who brings the Pilot/Flying J sponsorship with him that was previously at Richard Petty Motorsports. RPM is working on sponsorship for its Nationwide team for Corey LaJoie.
No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing Chevy: Although Mark Martin has subbed for the recovering Tony Stewart, the three-time champ is expected to return in time for Daytona Speedweeks. Martin, 54, will test the No. 14 Chevy in the offseason but will not be in the 2014 Daytona 500 field.
No. 29 (3) Richard Childress Racing Chevy: With Harvick’s departure, Nationwide Series and former truck champ Austin Dillon will fill the seat. Gil Martin stays on as the crew chief. Sponsors TBD.
No. 31 Richard Childress Racing: Jeff Burton has been bumped by Ryan Newman. Burton is expected to warm the seat in the third Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, perhaps along with a few rising stars to be named later, before transitioning to the NBC NASCAR broadcast booth.
No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing: After a solid season with Furniture Row Racing, Kurt Busch will transition into the newly created team orchestrated by Gene Haas. Although Matt Borland was rumored to be his crew chief, Daniel Knost, team engineer on the No. 39 Chevy, is expected in that role.
No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing: Kyle Larson is taking over for Juan Pablo Montoya, who returns to open wheel after seven mediocre seasons in stock cars. Larson, the latest Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year, has shown great promise and will continue his double duty run in NASCAR’s top two divisions. Montoya will compete in IndyCar for Roger Penske.
No. 47 JTG/Daugherty Racing: Team owner Tad Geschickter has opted to put a younger driver in the car, AJ Allmendinger. However, NASCAR’s 2000 Sprint Cup champ, Bobby Labonte, has been offered a role inside of the organization. Although it was quite unexpected, Labonte — who has titles in both Cup and the Nationwide Series — has not discounted that a truck ride is out of the question in an effort to be NASCAR’s first Triple Crown winner.
No. 51 Phoenix Racing: Not sure whether new team owner Harry Scott will change the name of his race team, but regardless, Justin Allgaier will be the primary driver with Steve Addington as his crew chief.
No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing: Although Brian Vickers wasn’t expected to jump in the seat full-time until 2014, the door opened early when Mark Martin left to sub for Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Chevy. Nevertheless, when Vickers was diagnosed with a blood clot last month, his succession was further delayed with Elliott Sadler filling in for the remainder of the season. Vickers is expected to return in time for Speedweeks in February. If not, that will be quite the dilemma for MWR.
No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing: Expect to see Michael Waltrip behind the wheel at Daytona. Following Speedweeks, it’s likely that Jeff Burton will be driving the organization’s “R&D car.”
No. 78 Furniture Row Racing: Martin Truex Jr. takes over for Kurt Busch at FRR. But he will have a big seat to fill after Busch broke every team record set over the previous eight seasons, with the exception of earning a win. Still, if Truex qualifies for the Chase next season, it will be quite the coup. Truex will have an advantage since he’s bringing his pit crew with him — a weakness Busch endured through most of the season.
No. 95 Leavine Fenton Racing: With Phil Parsons’ team headed for the mothballs, Michael McDowell is expected to drive the No. 95 Ford next year.