Harvick looking for grand finale
Kevin Harvick wants us to believe that he will be a championship contender in 2013.
Harvick, who was offered the opportunity of a lifetime to drive the No. 29 by Richard Childress in 2001 after Dale Earnhardt was killed in the Daytona 500, wants us to believe there will be no animosity felt by his owner as he prepares to leave at the end of the year to drive for Tony Stewart.
And Harvick wants us to believe that after discussing the situation with Matt Kenseth, who parted ways with Jack Roush after 13 seasons to join Joe Gibbs Racing, he has the perfect road map to circumvent the landmines along the way.
But will it be that easy?
“For me, I look at this as a character-building year to go out and have fun and leave this place as good as it was when I got here if not better,” Harvick said. “You want to do everything you can to participate in everything you can to make the cars run as fast as you can. I have a lot of friends here and I want to leave that way. That’s how you have to approach it.
“As we’ve gone through testing and everything, everyone is talking and communicating and doing the things to make the cars fast and that’s really what it’s all about – winning races and being competitive.”
Yet after Harvick fired his team – and crew chief Gil Martin – at the end of 2011 when he finished third for a consecutive season, one has to wonder how loyal his team will be. Despite a shake-up on the No. 29 team, Harvick quickly learned the grass was not greener under the direction of Shane Wilson. Harvick begged Martin to return – and he did apprehensively at Bristol in August. Eleven races later, Martin and Harvick returned to Victory Lane at Phoenix Raceway and finished eighth in the point standings. For Harvick, now 37 years old, it was the eighth time he finished in the top 10 since Childress promoted him to the Cup Series 12 seasons ago.
Still, it wasn’t enough.
“It’s been a great journey,” Harvick said. “But sometimes you need a change of pace to keep the enthusiasm and things to where they need to be. It’s made the enthusiasm level high for this year. I think I’ve been here since October of ’99. We’ve won Nationwide championships, 19 Cup races, 30 or 40 Nationwide races, truck races and lived through a lot of different situations.
“Changes can be bad but for the most part when you have change the enthusiasm level goes through the roof and you want to do well. Sometimes you just need a change of pace and that’s where I was.”
Harvick still hasn’t acknowledged publicly that Stewart Haas Racing is his destination for 2014. When you ask Harvick for specifics on his defection, he remains coy. But Harvick’s admission that “these guys (RCR) are looking to build their company for the future so there’s going to be some situations that obviously you don’t think is right but they’re doing what’s best for them to take them into the future. So you’re going to have to suck it up in a few different situations to do the right thing for everybody,” says a lot. One can surmise from that statement that Harvick questioned the rationality of Childress’ focus on grandsons Austin and Ty Dillon’s development over the Sprint Cup program.
While the Dillons are extremely talented and show tremendous promise, it’s a sentiment shared by many in the Welcome-based shop. As a former team owner – and a successful one at that – Harvick thoroughly understands the complexities involved with running an organization. And despite the tragedy Richard Childress Racing faced in 2001 with the loss of not only the face of the company but the sport’s compass in Dale Earnhardt, this organization persevered. Despite running one less race than the rest of the field, Harvick still finished ninth in the point standings.
Harvick believes that if the organization survived the loss of Earnhardt, this transition will be easy.
“Everybody gets frustrated and obviously Richard has been through a lot of situations with me,” Harvick said. “You look back and still, this isn’t even close to what we approached in ’01. This isn’t really that hard.
“When you can keep your company floating and keep winning races and keep people in jobs, when we look back at a lot of the closed door stuff and all the scenarios we had to go through in that particular instance and the emotions? This is a cake walk.”
When asked whether he has discussed his departure with Childress, Harvick insists they only discuss matters on the track and “don’t talk about feelings.” For a relationship that spans 14 seasons, that seems a bit understated.
Regardless, Childress has invested emotionally and financially in Harvick since discovering the Bakersfield, Calif. native in the truck series and drafted him for a Nationwide Series ride in 1999. A lot has transpired throughout the course of their relationship since then – including Harvick’s discussion of his departure with Childress before the story was leaked in November before the events at Phoenix. But Childress didn’t expect the news to break before the end of the season. After 40 years in the business, Childress says he was “surprised” by the news but he still wants the driver “to win the championship and leave on a high note.”
“He’ll do well at Stewart Haas and we’ll keep moving forward and see how it turns out,” Childress said. “He and Tony have a good relationship. I knew he had been talking to other teams.
“When we lost Dale and put Kevin in the car, he was the driver we needed. Now that he’ll leave, we will find another driver to put in and carry RCR on. We have two good drivers with Paul Menard and Jeff Burton. We’ll add to that and one of them could be Austin. I really haven’t given it a lot of thought.
“We’re so focused in putting everything together for next year and being competitive like we should be. 2012 was a disappointment but all teams go through it. If you look back through history whether it was Roush, Hendrick, whoever, you have your highs and lows. Last year was just another low.”
Over the last 12 seasons, Harvick has amassed 19 wins and no Cup championships. Yes, he’s been close. In 2010, Harvick led the point standings for 20 of the first 26 races – but not during the Chase. The following year, Harvick topped the points for four races and as late as Dover, the third race of the Chase, before Stewart waged his epic comeback by winning five races in the ‘playoffs’ and SHR’s first championship.
Since SHR’s inception four years ago, Stewart’s company has earned a Cup title and 17 victories. RCR scored 12 wins during that period, but hasn’t won a title since Earnhardt’s last championship run in 1994. It’s understandable that at 37, Harvick wants one last run at the title and feels that Stewart can provide him with the equipment to succeed. For now, however, he’ll have to rely on his team until November.
“Everybody that I’ve been talking to is expecting this big, wild blow up year,” Martin said. “I’m telling you, it’s actually going to be a positive. That guy thrives on this kind of environment. To have that kind of motivation to show everybody that we can win this championship, I think he’s going to thrive on it. I really do.
“I think the team is geared up for it. We have a lot to prove just not as a team but as a company. And I don’t think it’s going to be a negative. Is it going to be disappointing when the year comes to an end and everyone splits ways? Yeah. But I hope we do it with a ring on our finger.”
At the end of his tenure, Harvick insists he wants to remain competitive throughout the season and leave with “as much class as (he) can.”
“It’s really all what you make it,” Harvick said. “We’ve obviously beat around the subject the last couple of weeks in different situations, but I’ve been around my team a lot over the past several weeks and feel good about where everybody’s mindset is. They don’t care what anyone thinks upstairs. They just want to win races. That’s where I’m at.
“We’re going to race. We’re all racers. We don’t care whether we’re driving for whoever, or driving here, there or anywhere – a go-kart race, whatever it might be. You just want to go out and win. Nobody is going to do anything less than go out and try to achieve those goals.”