Richard Childress Racing has probably lost its faint chance to keep Kevin Harvick on the heels of Wednesday's devastating announcement that Shell/Pennzoil is moving to Penske Racing in 2011 to sponsor Kurt Busch in the Sprint Cup Series.
RCR already faced a serious, uphill challenge in trying to retain Harvick, who is in the final year of his contract, even if it had managed to hold onto Pennzoil, sponsor of Harvick's No. 29 since 2007. Harvick, according to multiple sources reached by SI.com but never confirmed by the driver, wanted out of RCR at the end of last season, but team owner Richard Childress held him to the contract. The duo came out strong out of the gate this season -- they led the points after five races and are currently fourth, 141 behind Jimmie Johnson -- but the sour feelings between the two haven't changed.
"Kevin has burned all his bridges here," said a source requesting anonymity following the news of Shell's departure. The source reiterated the chances of Childress and Harvick dissolving their marriage were close to 100 percent.
Harvick, with 11 wins, including the 2007 Daytona 500, and three Chase seasons, is the top free agent driver on the market. His preferred destination is Stewart-Haas Racing, where he'd have Hendrick equipment. Tony Stewart is on the record as wanting to expand to three cars next season, dependent upon sponsorship. With Harvick to sell and the broad range of commercial possibilities available through the team's partner-like association with Hendrick, Stewart-Haas has far greater ability to find a sponsor for Harvick.
Kasey Kahne's decision to join Rick Hendrick's organization in 2012 has led to widespread speculation that he'll be at Stewart-Haas in 2011. Kahne certainly will be in Hendrick equipment next season and it's the logical place.
The other possibility would be for Hendrick to ask Mark Martin to vacate the No. 5 a year early to go to Stewart-Haas. In either situation, it would require Stewart-Haas to run four cars in 2011. That 's not beyond the team's reach and it's where Stewart wants to get eventually.
Harvick said last weekend at Texas that Kahne's signing with Hendrick had no impact on his plans. But he's consistently refused to talk about his 2011status since last year. When asked to elaborate on the subject at Texas, Harvick said: "I'm happy to be at Texas. I love it."
RCR was a four-car team last year with Casey Mears in the No. 07, and when Jack Daniels decided to leave, the team was not able to find a replacement and the team shut down. The Chevrolet team was also hit hard financially by GM's bankruptcy.
This has been a resurgent season for RCR, which has Harvick fourth, Jeff Burton eighth and Clint Bowyer 14th in the points. Performance matters to sponsors. RCR is in a better position to sell itself than last year and Harvick is a more marketable driver than Mears. But without Harvick under contract and probably headed for Stewart-Haas, RCR is facing the real possibility of becoming a two-car team. It's not the model for success in Sprint Cup these days.
In a statement, Richard Childress was optimistic about putting together a sponsorship package for Harvick.
"What this creates for RCR is the opportunity for a new partner to forge its own relationship and identity with Kevin Harvick," Childress said. "The No. 29 team has had only two primary sponsors since it began in 2001, but the number 3 has played a significant role in RCR for decades. We feel strongly that the third chapter of the No. 29 team's partnership history will be a successful one."
For the Penske organization, it's a gigantic boost. The Cup team has been underfunded for the past several years and the addition of Pennzoil with a multi-year contract brings a second bona fide major sponsor to it. Miller will become Brad Keselowski's sponsor in the No. 2 Dodge next year in the first of a multi-year agreement. Keselowski's car had been partially funded by Dodge and Verizon, which isn't allowed signage on the No. 12 because of NASCAR's agreement with Sprint. Miller is a much bigger financial deal for Penske and Keselowski and, along with the Shell/Pennzoil deal, provides long-term stability to the team.
Sam Hornish Jr. loses Mobil 1 on the No. 77, which could jeopardize his job at Penske. The team says it plans on re-signing the former IndyCar star.
"Sam has continued to show improvement on the track this year," a spokesman said via e-mail. "Penske Racing looks forward to Sam continuing with our NASCAR Cup Series program in 2011 and his sponsorship will be determined in the near future."
Neither Hornish nor Harvick have sponsorship at their current employers, but here's the difference: Hornish doesn't have any better options and doesn't want to leave; Harvick wants to leave and has a better option in Stewart-Haas.