Harvick determined to make the best of a potentially awkward 2013
Once again, Kevin Harvick finds himself in a nine-month-long holding pattern, waiting for the day when he knows his life will dramatically change. Last year, he awaited the birth of his and wife DeLana's first child, Keelan, who was born in July. This year, Harvick bides his time in anticipation of leaving Richard Childress Racing -- the only team he has worked for in his 13-season NASCAR career -- to join Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
Granted, there shouldn't be nearly the level of anxiety surrounding Harvick's departure from RCR as there was in the months leading up to Keelan's arrival. Most drivers, no matter how successful they are, change teams two or three times throughout their racing careers. Matt Kenseth is the latest example, as he joins Joe Gibbs Racing this season after a 15-year run with Roush Fenway Racing that included winning the 2003 Sprint Cup Series championship.
But rarely is such a change announced over a full season ahead of time, as Harvick's was. While weddings might be planned months in advance, divorce usually takes place as quickly as possible. And you don't want to continue living together in the same house while waiting for the papers to be signed. However, Harvick and Childress are doing just that this entire season. They are working together while making no plans for the future.
This definitely did not begin as an amicable split. When word of Harvick's intentions first surfaced at Phoenix International Raceway last November, a clearly agitated Childress called the report "bulls---" and said of Harvick, "He's driving for me in '13 and we're still in '12, so I ain't even going to talk about it to nobody."
Three months later, Childress' denial and anger has given way to acceptance. The reality is that Harvick will race under the RCR banner for one more season and then move on (possible clearing the way for Childress' grandson, current Nationwide Series driver Austin Dillon, to move into Sprint Cup next year). And while that might result in an awkward 2013 at times, both owner and driver say they are determined to make the best of the situation.
"It's going to be tough, but we both have committed to make this a positive ending," Childress said. "We sat in the office and agreed that we're both going to go out and give it all we have to win this championship. ... I want him to leave on a high note. I want to have a long-term friendship with Kevin after this is over. Life's too short to keep carrying things on."
Harvick agrees. While admitting that 2013 will be "a character-building year," he said the primary goal for the No. 29 team remains the same as it has always been -- to win as many races as possible and contend for the Sprint Cup championship.
"I have a lot of respect for Richard and the organization, and you don't want to put a black mark on that as you leave. You want to do it with as much class as you can," Harvick said. "We're all racers. We don't care whom we're driving for or where it may be. You want to go out and win. Nobody is going to do anything less than work as hard as they can to achieve those goals."
It is widely assumed that championship-level success in Sprint Cup cannot be achieved during any sort of lame-duck situation (especially one that extends for an entire season), though that has not been the case in recent years. Tony Stewart won the 2011 championship even though crew chief Darian Grubb knew before the end of the season that he was being let go. Brad Keselowski drove a Dodge to the title last year after the manufacturer had announced it was getting out of the sport at season's end. And though Kenseth didn't win the championship, he still managed to pick up two victories for Roush Fenway last year after it was revealed that he was leaving for Gibbs.
"You look at what Matt did last year, I think you can put a lot of stock in that," Harvick said. "As you approach something like this, it's really all what you make of it. I've been around my team a lot lately and feel pretty good about where everybody's mindset is. Those guys couldn't care less about what's going to happen next year. They just want to win races. That's where I'm at, too. The bottom line is we're all getting paid to do a job and represent these companies [sponsors] to do the best job we can."
If there is anything that makes Harvick's decision to leave RCR different from the situation facing other departing drivers, it is the way he arrived into Sprint Cup racing. In 2001, the then 25-year-old Harvick was all set to compete in his second full season on the Nationwide Series when the death of longtime RCR driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the season-opening Daytona 500 prompted Childress to elevate Harvick into the Cup series immediately.
Though Harvick never drove in the familiar black No. 3 design that Earnhardt made famous, he was racing the same cars for the same crew members that Earnhardt had used. Basically, Harvick had replaced the legendary Earnhardt in the RCR stable, and he had done so in the most emotional of ways.
So when Harvick won two times that season and finished ninth in the Sprint Cup point standings, he became the favorite driver for a segment of NASCAR fans who had previously rooted for Earnhardt. The connection between the two has diminished over the years, especially following the emergence of Dale Earnhardt Jr., but the Harvick-Earnhardt-RCR link still existed. After this season, that long-time bond will be broken.
There may be some emotional moments near the end of the season, but for now neither Harvick nor Childress seems interested in reflection and introspection. Instead, their focus simply is on the upcoming season and their attempt to contend for the Sprint Cup championship. Harvick finished third in the standings in both 2010 and 2011 before slipping to eighth last year.
"I really haven't given a lot of thought about [the past]. We're so focused on putting everything together for this year and trying to go out and be competitive like we should be," Childress said. "Last year was a disappointment, but all teams go through that. You have your highs and your lows, and last year happened to be a low. We want this year to be one of the highs."
Harvick, meanwhile, practically laughed when asked whether he and Childress have had any sentimental moments since the decision to leave was made. "We don't talk about feelings, we talk about performance," Harvick said. "We talk about race cars, the way things need to be on the track and trying to figure out what we need to do to win races. That's really all we talk about, because that's really what it's all about."
At least, for nine more months.