Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
Previews, predictions and stats for Kevin Harvick and the No. 29 team
It’s said that driving while distracted is dangerous, and if that holds true in the midst of a major NASCAR transition, 2013 could be hazardous for Kevin Harvick. At the end of the season, Dale Earnhardt’s 2001 replacement will step out of the only Cup ride he’s ever known and head to Stewart-Haas Racing in a deal that was blown open unexpectedly last November. No matter how you slice it, that’s a pretty major event for the 37-year-old. It also means that Harvick will spend nine months as a lame duck, driving for the Richard Childress Racing organization in a situation that could turn explosive under the right circumstances.
That’s not to say things were all peachy in 2012. Harvick is coming off of a season in which, despite a top-10 points finish, his team faltered. Entering as a title favorite after consecutive third-place Chase showings, Harvick won only once all year (Phoenix). His 14 top 10s were the lowest total for any Chase driver, and despite having a better average finish than Denny Hamlin or Kasey Kahne, Harvick was plagued by mediocrity in a car that was consistently good, but never great. Whether this downturn was due to internal changes at RCR, a crew chief change gone awry, or something else, it was clear that the No. 29 team was missing something last year, making 2013 a rebuilding season — and, as we’ve seen in the past, Harvick can struggle when things aren’t clicking.
The good news is that Harvick will be reunited with crew chief Gil Martin this year. It was Martin who helped Harvick deliver his back-to-back third-place points finishes in 2010 and 2011. How immediate will the impact be on this team? After Martin came on board for the final 12 races last season, Harvick snagged his sole win, but his 11.6-place average finish with Martin wasn’t much different than the 12.3 he posted under Shane Wilson’s watch. These numbers only reinforce the belief that RCR’s 2012 issues went much deeper than driver/team chemistry.
What’s a little less clear is where Harvick stands within a changing RCR structure. The organization as a whole has suffered since the departure of Competition Director Scott Miller at the end of the 2011 season. Think Miller’s departure was a minor detail? It wasn’t. Miller moved to Michael Waltrip Racing for 2012, an organization that had not previously made the Chase. Suddenly, two MWR teams launched into the postseason while all three RCR teams struggled. Coincidence? Probably not.
Team owner Richard Childress is committed to the success of his three teams, but whether his focus will be on Harvick is another matter. Major sponsors Budweiser, Rheem and Jimmy John’s are expected to follow the driver to SHR, so how do you support a team that’s on the verge of a total overhaul? Childress, who shuffled personnel in late 2011 as a result of a Harvick demand, can now start taking control regardless of the driver’s preference — after all, he needs to prepare for grandson Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch, or whoever will man the car come 2014. Will the team back down because Harvick won’t return? That’s less likely, because they would probably like nothing better than to show the driver that he’s making a mistake, and because they’re fighting for future employment.
That battle for control doesn’t bode well for a volatile Harvick. However, the driver has claimed that he’s committed to making things work. Talking to Matt Kenseth at length in Las Vegas about running with a “lame duck” program was a good move: Kenseth won twice in the Chase and remained competitive despite a pending jump to Joe Gibbs Racing. But can Harvick’s poor attitude, known for popping up at inappropriate times, withstand RCR’s continued fascination with the Dillon boys? One bad run could lead to a month (or longer) of therapy needed within the No. 29 bunch.
The last full-season “lame duck” situation we witnessed was with Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin in 2011. Neither driver made the Chase, though both found some level of success. For Harvick to avoid the same fate, he must prevent a breakdown with open, productive communication. Unfortunately, he isn’t known as a driver who thrives under pressure and, in fact, has in the past shown the opposite to be true.
Harvick and his good buddy Stewart will make for a great team in 2014. But with all of 2013 to get through first, it seems unlikely that this pending divorce will end amicably.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
Kevin Harvick enters his final season at Richard Childress Racing with some questions, but one element that is without doubt is his desire, as one rival crew chief explains:
“He’s a very, very good race car driver, and definitely aggressive. He’s got a short temper for sure. Some people think he is cocky and arrogant but I just believe he cares deeply about the sport and thinks (finishing) second sucks. It’s ‘win or nothing’ for Harvick, and that rubs a lot of people the wrong way, but he is definitely one of the top-5 drivers out there for sure.”
The looming issue for Harvick, in the short term at least, is how his impending split with RCR will affect his standing in 2013.
“We’ve seen Harvick and RCR at odds before, and the fallout wasn’t pretty,” one media member notes. “Once they got their issues worked out, it was like a different team. There is no working this issue out, though. Harvick is leaving and that’s that; so how do driver and team push that fact aside and carry on? There will be splashes of excellence, but I envision him going out with a whimper, not a bang.”
Looking at Checkers: Extremely versatile driver who can (and has) won on all types of tracks …
Pretty Solid Pick: … namely, Daytona, Indy and Phoenix.
Good Sleeper Pick: The road courses. The rougher the better.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: For all the great memories his 2001 Atlanta win provided, Harvick hasn’t been all that strong there since. In fact, AMS plays host to his worst average finish (19.2) of any track.
Insider Tip: Harvick is an extremely able driver, but from a fantasy standpoint, he’s not trustworthy in what could become a volatile situation. Jump off this beer wagon until 2014.
Click here to order the 2013 Athlon Sports Racing annual.