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Harvick Appears In Position To Fulfill Potential

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 4 2014

Kevin Harvick's Stewart-Haas Racing Chevys may be confetti magnets quite often this season. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

It’s always been tough to slot Kevin Harvick during discussions about driving talent. By the end of the 2014 Sprint Cup season – 2015 at the latest – that process will become easier.

Right now, albeit just a week into the current season, there is growing evidence that Harvick’s place in those discussions could make a dramatic leap upward.

Harvick has always scored well on the scale of recognizability. He was the driver who took over Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s seat at Richard Childress Racing after Earnhardt’s death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

That in itself was a spotlight magnet.

But that spotlight didn’t wilt the charm school dropout from hard-scrabble Bakersfield, Calif. Harvick finished a very respectable 14th in his first race in the car that had previously carried the No. 3 on its door. The next week, at Las Vegas, he finished eighth.

The race after that, at Atlanta, Harvick drove Earnhardt’s car to victory. He would win again in Chicagoland Speedway’s first-ever race that autumn and would finish the season ranked ninth in driver points.

Earnhardt’s tragic death was clearly story No. 1 in 2001, but Harvick’s incredible run under oppressive circumstances as a 26-year-old rookie might have been story No. 2.

All knew that nobody – except perhaps his son – could replace Earnhardt as a living symbol of American stock car racing. But, it appeared 13 years ago that Harvick was well-suited in terms of talent and and demeanor to press on as the perfect understudy for The Intimidator.

It certainly seemed all but certain that Harvick would spend the rest of his career challenging for Cup championships – and winning a multiple number of those challenges.

Auto racing, however, is the oddest of all sports when it comes talent being justly rewarded. Only occasionally does the race go to the swiftest. The rest of the time, car races go to those who survive the fickleness of machinery and the missteps others.

Hence the debate over Harvick’s place on lists of driving greats.

In the years since his rookie season, Harvick’s on-track fortunes have been all over the stat sheets. A line graph of his point finishes would look like a pruning saw blade: 21st, 5th, 14th, 14th, 4th, 10th, 4th, 19th, 3rd, 3rd, 8th, 3rd.

Nowhere on the graph is there a 1st. The years that Harvick looked to be a solid contender for a championship, things desolidified at the wrong time.

As the seasons passed without a championship, attention began to turn toward his situation. That is, his team.

Richard Childress Racing is one of the most respected teams in the garages. Has been since Earnhardt came along. Childress himself is one of the most respected people in the garages.

But on-track fortunes have been, well, think of the pruning saw blade again.

Nobody but Earnhardt – who won six Cups for the team – has been able to win a Cup championship at RCR. Not Jeff Burton, not Clint Bowyer, not Robby Gordon, not Paul Menard and not Harvick.

Again, the paths to Victory Lane and the head table at the post-season banquet are dotted with unmarked hazards and unexpected detours. And, parity has become built into the system at NASCAR.

But at some point, you have to start to wonder why and why not?

Harvick, who bolted to Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2014 season, must surely have been wondering about those things in recent years at RCR.

Those thinking that a change of climate was what Harvick’s career needed to strengthen his place on the all-time lists now have some early told-you-so evidence.

Over the weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, Harvick clearly had the fastest car on the track. More importantly for bench racers was the undeniable fact that he knew exactly how to handle that fast car.

The event at PIR degenerated into a mass of late-race restarts. Each time Harvick was perfect on those restarts – including the last one, which he used to get the victory.

After the victory, Harvick reported for his mandatory press conference as a man of many words. And a good portion of those words dealt with everything above.

“Well,” Harvick said, “I feel like as we’ve gone through time, whether it be selling the race teams (he and his wife owned), going and shutting everything down, changing teams, changing jobs, doing all the decisions that we’ve done, I feel like you talk to your friends, you talk to your family, you talk to the people around you.

“It wasn’t that I couldn’t be a part of the championship before, it’s just that we hadn’t won a championship before. We do this to win. You want to win races. We’ve been fortunate to do that in the past. But in this arena it’s about winning championships and trying to be competitive on a weekly basis.

“I felt like I needed that enthusiasm to show up to work. I get to do this with a lot of my friends, with Tony (Stewart). I feel like we’ve had a great relationship in the past. He’s driven my Nationwide cars. I feel like as we go through situations, I’ve learned that Tony is one of the smartest people that I know.

“I sat at a roulette wheel with Tony in Vegas about four weeks ago. I learned he’s just short of Rain Man. He doesn’t say anything. He sits there and listens to everything you say, takes all these things in. I know I’m going to say something and he’s going to remember it four, five, six weeks down the road, Remember back in this meeting when you said this, why do you think this today?

“I think as we go through time, I’ve sat there and talked with Tony about what’s expected. He expects me and Rodney (Childers, Harvick’s crew chief) to help lead the charge on the competition side as to what needs to be the direction.”

Yes, it’s still early. And Sunday’s victory came on one of Harvick’s showplace tracks.

But big, huge career leaps all begin somewhere and for they guy that some in the media have facetiously dubbed “Happy”, the finish line at Phoenix 1 in 2014 may have been the starting line to a wonderful career deferred.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 4 2014
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