It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than a dozen years since Kevin Harvick, at age 25, was thrust into the NASCAR spotlight, handed the impossible task of mending broken hearts just days after the death of Dale Earnhardt. Harvick rose to the challenge, winning two races in 2001 and propelling himself into the top 10 in points as a rookie, despite a temper that would plague him in the early part of his career. A roller-coaster relationship with team owner Richard Childress, built in the midst of tragedy, was often tempestuous in public. But it also produced terrific success — to the point that as of their divorce in November 2013, only Jeff Gordon had been with his current team for longer among the current crop of full-time Sprint Cup competitors.
Now, at age 38, Harvick hopes to be this year’s Matt Kenseth, ending a long-term marriage with the hopes that his NASCAR mid-life crisis reinvigorates his prospects for a championship. His move to Stewart-Haas Racing should be a positive one — in fact, in what organization other than RCR would you expect him to seamlessly fit right in? He and team co-owner Tony Stewart are longtime friends with similar racing styles, and SHR’s equipment is a baby step above RCR’s. The team runs chassis and engines from 2013 champs Hendrick Motorsports, meaning that the cars will be both fast and reliable. While RCR is a championship team, it is also nearly 20 years removed from a Cup title; SHR has the 2011 Sprint Cup trophy in the case.
This full-scale reboot, one that has seen SHR also revamp itself, means Harvick will work with veteran crew chief Rodney Childers. Childers has won races with Michael Waltrip Racing, most recently the 2013 summer race at Loudon, in which he took a surprising win with part-time driver Brian Vickers. Childers is a bold head wrench, not afraid to push the envelope, which has gotten him in hot water in the past. During a period from 2007 through 2011, he was the most penalized crew chief in the series. However, with Vice President of Engineering Matt Borland and VP of Competition Greg Zipadelli still on board, there’s a mix of proven methods and new ideas that could prove beneficial.
Another point in Harvick’s corner is sponsorship. His major backers, Budweiser and Jimmy John’s, both move to SHR with the driver, joining with existing SHR partners for 33 races. The stats give good reason for these companies to stay attached; third in points in three of the last four seasons with RCR, Harvick posted four wins in 2013 while averaging a finish of 11.2 (second only to series champion Jimmie Johnson).
Harvick has matured — the temper is still there, but he no longer races every lap like it’s the last (33 lead-lap finishes last year attest to that). His nickname — “The Closer” — sticks better than ever these days for a driver who’s at his best in a race’s final segment. The question for Harvick, just a few months removed from having a sledgehammer thrown at him on national television, is whether he can keep things from getting personal in-house. In 2013, his team remarkably turned a “lame duck” year into a shot at the championship at Homestead despite internal strife. That alone should give him the benefit of the doubt. In fact, considering the volatile personalities of Stewart and Kurt Busch within SHR, it might be Harvick’s ability to stay calm that keeps this fragile house of cards intact.
So can a Kenseth-like run be in the offing? SHR was a little behind the game in 2013, although Stewart was heating up before an injury ended his season. During down times, Harvick will have to keep communicating, not just to Childers when handling gets rough but also in the shop on Monday. Hotheads typically produce horrific outcomes; there’s a reason why Hendrick Motorsports stays on top year in, year out. But Harvick has already put himself in position to deliver, privately working with Danica Patrick the last few months while downplaying his former dislike of Busch. Successful on intermediates, Harvick also brings Gen-6 knowledge to the table to shore up this organization’s largest weakness.
It’s all part of a brave new world for Harvick, who is finally stepping out of Earnhardt’s shadow to create a legacy of his own. The road ahead is paved with growing pains, but Harvick has managed to defy odds in the past, and things should be no different this season. Expect him to make the most of a chance to write his own chapter.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Harvick was in the hunt until the end last season when he was a lame-duck driver,” a rival notes. “It takes a special person to stay competitive when tensions are so high and everyone expects you to fail. Harvick has won races in RCR equipment when the rest of the organization has been less than competitive. He hates to lose and can win on most any type of racetrack.”
“Harvick’s emotions need to be kept in check,” another says. “He can fly off of the handle on his team, his organization and his fellow drivers. He needs to learn that not everyone performs their best if they are being berated whenever they make the smallest misstep. He’s also going to a new team, and any time you go to a new team the chemistry takes a while to be established. He’s going to have to get along with Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart — and that could be a tall order when he gets together with one of them on the track, especially if he thinks one of them is getting better equipment.”
“I whiffed on Harvick big time last year,” one media member says. “He really is a different guy than he was just three years ago. And now that he’s in good buddy Tony Stewart’s house, I think big things are in store.”
Looking at Checkers: What makes Harvick so dangerous is that he — unlike many drivers — is capable of winning on any type of track. Plates and shorts seem to be his bread ’n’ butter.
Pretty Solid Pick: Teammates Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch (OK, and Danica) make for some mighty powerful drafting partners.
Good Sleeper Pick: Eleven top 10s in 13 Homestead races? How has he not won there yet?
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Very few. In the CoT/Gen-6 era, Harvick has recorded a top-5 finish at every track except Kentucky and Watkins Glen.
Insider Tip: Chemistry with Rodney Childers bears watching, but we don’t expect Harvick to miss a beat at “Uncles Smoke’s” operation.
No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors: No. 4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s/Outback Steakhouse
Owners: Tony Stewart/Joe Custer/Gene Haas
Crew Chief: Rodney Childers
Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2016
Best points finish: 3rd (2010, ’11, ‘13)
Hometown: Bakersfield, Calif.
Born: Dec. 8, 1975
Photos courtesy of Stewart-Haas Racing
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