Up until 2014, Kevin Harvick’s place in NASCAR lore was simple: “The man who replaced Dale Earnhardt.” Called into service a year ahead of schedule following the sport’s most horrific tragedy, Harvick was owner Richard Childress’ life raft, forever measured against a driver whose skill hooked fans for a generation. Earning a victory in just his third Sprint Cup start at Atlanta in 2001, Harvick helped spur the healing of a NASCAR Nation grieving Earnhardt’s untimely death.
Thirteen years and 27 wins later, Harvick etched his name in the history books again, becoming a worthy Sprint Cup champion in the first year of the new Chase format. In between came controversy and change, as the oft-volatile Harvick moved from Richard Childress Racing, the only home he had ever known, to “restart” with Stewart-Haas Racing. With an opportunity to build from scratch at age 38, Harvick could put the expectations and the burden of being Earnhardt’s successor behind him.
Harvick clearly had fast cars, and from Day 1 at SHR, he found the team’s system to his liking. His No. 4 group won five times, and if not for bad luck could have won twice that much. Harvick was often dominant, leading more than 2,000 laps, and put together a Chase average finish of 8.0. His series-leading eight poles were further proof of the speed that his team was able to coax from its racecars.
Can Harvick go back-to-back in 2015? Yes, absolutely. All the pieces remain in place, and Harvick and his team now have the confidence that they can complete a championship run. Most important of all, a driver who once felt lost once again controls his own destiny.
“My Cup career really started backwards,” he said after capturing the title. “It’s taken a long time to navigate through exactly what was a good mix. I think for me personally, (2014) was huge just in the fact that I’ve been excited to go to work and be a part of building something — getting my life where it had a great balance, whether it be personally, financially, or professionally.”
That sounds like a man with the mental focus to start collecting multiple championships. The irony is that Harvick’s success with the new Chase format showed other teams how it’s done, making a repeat that much harder in Year 2. The No. 4 team wasn’t flawless in the Chase — although it was close — and it’s likely that this year’s champ will have to up his game considerably.
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Perhaps the biggest weapon in Harvick’s arsenal is crew chief Rodney Childers. Childers, who came to SHR from Michael Waltrip Racing last year, had an immediate impact. Need proof of Childers’ value to a team? Look at the performance of MWR and the overall dropoff of that organization in 2014. He and Harvick will be a formidable pair with a year’s worth of notes to work from.
Harvick’s value to his sponsors was evident from the moment he moved to the SHR camp. Budweiser and Jimmy John’s left an established, iconic team to stick with Harvick rather than stay on with rookie Austin Dillon. Harvick has solid backing entering the season from companies who have thrived in the sport, understanding what it takes to win.
The equipment, a strong step up from RCR, should be excellent for 2015. Harvick’s cars are Hendrick chassis, prepared by SHR’s own engineering group, paired with library books of information and support. Hendrick also provides the engines, some of the best in the business in terms of both horsepower and durability.
That partnership extends to teammates. In Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch, Harvick also has a pair of former champions in-house who can help him shake down setups. The three worked well together in 2014 despite their reputations for being difficult, and these relationships are only going to improve with time. Harvick also credited Jimmie Johnson out of the Hendrick shop for helping him calm nerves and ascend to the title in crunch time.
Harvick proved he could put together speed and strategy with his championship, but now comes the hard part — defending it. A title run requires a team’s entire focus, avoiding distraction while sustaining the type of effort used for title No. 1.
Fortunately, focus is no longer a problem for Harvick, who is settled and successful in his new digs as he readies to keep his NASCAR reboot in high gear.
Beware of the outlier season Harvick led a total of 2,137 laps in 2014, which represents 32.6 percent of his career total, and ranked first in NASCAR’s average green-flag speed rank. The laws of regression indicate that it’s a safe bet he won’t lead as many laps or be as fast in 2015.
Make him your pick at Phoenix There have been seven races on Phoenix’s current configuration — Harvick has won four of them and finished second in another. It’s tough to argue with that kind of efficiency.
A closer in daylight hours In the 25 races that took place during daytime, Harvick gained 26 positions in the final tenth of races. Conversely, he lost 47 positions in the final tenth of races that took place under nighttime skies. Seems as if Harvick is more often “happy” when he gets to bed on time.
No. 4 Stewart-Hass Racing Chevrolet
Primary Sponsors: Budweiser, Jimmy John’s, Ditech, Outback Steakhouse
Owner: Tony Stewart/Gene Haas
Crew Chief: Rodney Childers
Year With Current Team: 2nd
Under Contract Through: 2016
Best Points Finish: 1st (2014)
Hometown: Bakersfield, Calif.
Born: Dec. 8, 1975
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.