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2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Gil Martin
Years with current team: 11
Under contract through: 2012+
Best points finish: 3rd (2010)
Hometown: Bakersfield, Calif.
Born: December 8, 1975
The second race of 2011 will mark Kevin Harvick’s 10th anniversary in the seat of the No. 29 at Richard Childress Racing. Harvick was a 25-year-old star in the making in 2001, slated to run the then-Busch Series while learning under the tutelage of men like Dale Earnhardt. The future was unclear for a relative unknown who was never expected to carry the weight of a team on his back.
Harvick was forced into the big leagues in only the season’s second week, though, following the death of Earnhardt, and shocked NASCAR Nation with two victories and a ninth-place points finish.
Now, 10 years later, Harvick retains that role of overachiever, going from the brink of divorce with RCR to championship threat after winning the regular season points title and posting arguably the best all-around season of his career.
The question as 2011 dawns is whether the team he works for still believes in a man whose biting criticism left a lasting impression during the Chase campaign. Ditching his pit crew five races into the postseason, the driver nicknamed “Happy” raised hell over their performance, even going out of his way at Homestead, when asked what he’d do different in the Chase, to proclaim, “I would take the first five (Chase races) back with the pit crew that I had the last five.” That over-the-wall group will stay with Clint Bowyer this year, but everyone has to scratch their heads over Harvick’s often aggressive, Bob Knight-style of putting people in their place through the media and over the team’s radio.
Keep in mind — this driver was shopping Shell/Pennzoil around to other teams, ready to bolt before the sponsor’s April bombshell signing with Penske Racing left him forced to re-sign at RCR. In public, Harvick and Childress say all the right things, although in private their relationship, once deemed irreparable in ’09, remains strained at times. Any hint of a struggle will rip the band-aid off these connections, damage healed only by the joys of on-track success and not personal apology. Crew chief Gil Martin is an expert at handling Harvick’s moody moments, but this team remains a powder keg with a driver unafraid to light the fuse at any time.
On the plus side, Harvick’s passion can be a good thing. The man wants to win so badly you can feel it, and when he channels that passion into driving, he can be unstoppable. With that emotional edge, keeping the consistency found in 2010 will be the No. 29 team’s biggest challenge. Harvick has always been streaky, either a title contender or an also-ran, and he needs to prove he can pick up the pieces of what could have (maybe should have) been his championship season in 2010.
Qualifying continues to be this veteran’s Achilles heel, with two poles in 2010 tempered by 15 starts of 26th or worse. Week in and week out, that’s an awful lot of cars for a driver to pass to get to the front, and it might have made the difference in a Chase competition defined by track position.
The other question mark for the year is sponsorship. When Shell/Pennzoil defected, Childress picked up Budweiser in a multi-year deal, but the long-time NASCAR supporter’s funding is only for 20 races. Jimmy Johns, a longtime sponsor of Harvick’s Nationwide Series cars, will pick up the tab for six additional events, but that leaves 10 with no sponsor on the hood. RCR likely will find the decals to fill the space, but the uncertainty threatens to cause a distraction.
At least this much is known: Childress will not let this team go down in flames. Lest anyone forget its heritage, the small number 3 on the door is an instant reminder of six championships won with Earnhardt. Childress would like nothing more than for this car to return to its former glory. RCR equipment is durable, and Earnhardt-Childress engines have been the gold standard in terms of Cup Series horsepower over the last year.
It’s hard to shake Harvick’s inconsistencies, though, and it’s important to note that he has never put together back-to-back top-5 points finishes. With a volatile personality, 2011 has a feast-or-famine look to it, although even in a worst-case scenario it’s hard to see last year’s regular-season points champion missing the Chase.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
Harvick has the style of a champion, or at least a champion back before the Chase was implemented in 2004. “Harvick was always the same, from the start of the season to the finish,” says one prominent observer. “He got the best out of the car and brought it home in one piece.”
Adds a rival crew chief, “You know, I think he’s still trying to find his place in NASCAR. There are times when it almost looks like he sees himself as ‘the enforcer’ of the sport. His style earns the respect of some and the alienation of others. But his numbers and his personality don’t match up. He gets in a lot of scraps, but he always manages to get a decent finish anyway. That’s hard to do.”
Another crew chief says, “Kevin’s one of those guys whose personality and numbers don’t mesh. He seems to get in a lot of scraps, but he’s got that knack to work through them and still get a good finish.”
Looking at Checkers: After some lean years, Harvick has become quite the plate racer.
Pretty Solid Pick: Lots of places, but especially Indy, where he has seven top 10s in 10 starts.
Good Sleeper Pick: His 7.9-place average at Homestead is his best, although he has no wins there.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: He’s got an all-star win, but otherwise it’s been pretty ugly at Charlotte.
Insider Tip: Clicked off top 10s even at tracks where he traditionally underperformed in 2010. A good play most weeks.
Top 5s: 16
Top 10s: 26
Laps Led: 357
Laps Completed: 10,645
Lead Lap Finishes: 32
Bonus Points: 90
Races Led: 16
Average Start: 21.0
Average Finish: 8.7
After First 26 Races: 3rd
Final Points Standing: 3rd
Driver Rating: 98.0 (4th)