Amy Henderson · Friday September 6, 2013
Trying to keep up with Silly Season 2013 is like trying to herd cats in a roomful of toddlers. Announcements have been many and frequent as teams make the changes they think will propel them up the NASCAR ladder. For some, like Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, that means a return to relevance; for others it means a shot at that elusive Sprint Cup championship.
Much ado has been made of Stewart-Haas Racing’s decision to hire 2004 champion Kurt Busch and his title hopes. Busch does bring championship experience to SHR’s brand-new fourth team, and his 2013 season shows that if he can keep his notorious temper in check, Busch will contend for wins and possibly another title. Team co-owner Tony Stewart will be back as well, and if he’s 100% healthy, well, there’s a reason he’s a three-time champion. No doubt, SHR will be strong in 2014 with these two behind the wheel and top-flight equipment from Hendrick Motorsports, an organization with ten Cup titles to its name.
Funny that the move that might be the most likely to bring SHR the team’s second Cup title is the one nobody’s talking about.
To be fair, it was a move made nearly a year ago, and with so many moves going on right now, it’s easy to forget one that went down so many months ago. Not only that, but it came amid the Chase hype that didn’t really include SHR. But odds are, a year from now, nobody will be overlooking SHR’s No. 4 team and driver Kevin Harvick.
Sure, it’s easy to put your money on Stewart or Busch; both already have titles in hand. But if there’s a driver out there hungrier than Harvick to prove himself, someone had better hire him quick. Since Harvick came to the Cup Series in 2001, thrown into the seat left vacant by the untimely death of Dale Earnhardt, the desire has been almost palpable. Early in Harvick’s career, that desire made him some enemies on track and detractors in the stands as many felt he was trying to be another Earnhardt. To be fair, if he was, it was probably in part due to the rookie’s response to the pressure of replacing a legend. Perhaps he thought that’s what media and fans expected; perhaps some did expect that.
Harvick has toned down somewhat, but the fire is still evident in him. That’s what has earned him the nickname “the Closer” because if he’s anywhere near the front and has a car even sort of capable of going for the win, he’s going to drive the wheels off if it trying to get there. Yes, he’s overaggressive at times, and that’s gotten him in trouble. He has a temper that rivals new teammate Busch’s, and a vocabulary nearly as extensive to match. (And adding in Stewart’s notoriously irascible temperament, you do have to wonder about team dynamics at the shop.) But behind that is a driver desperate to win.
And that’s just dangerous when he’s in the best equipment money can buy.
If Harvick is that hungry and that talented, though, how come he hasn’t won a title already? Richard Childress Racing isn’t exactly a bottom-of-the-barrel team. No, but they’re not at the level of Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing, either. The truth is, RCR has been ever so slightly behind the NASCAR curve since Earnhardt’s death, and maybe even a bit before. There were times when Earnhardt might have contended for an eighth title but couldn’t quite make it happen. It’s not a big disparity (the rise of Furniture Row racing as basically a fourth RCR team shows that), and RCR is no backmarker team, but something has been missing.
And if that something, that missing link, was indeed somewhere within the chassis or the engines, that will all change for Harvick starting in February at Daytona. His 2013 numbers are strong, despite the fact that he’s probably not RCR’s main focus right now. He’s third in points with a pair of wins that will put him around fourth place when the points are shuffled for the Chase. Few drivers have multiple wins in 2013, and Harvick’s six top 5’s and 13 top 10’s are also solid numbers, not far off point leader Jimmie Johnson’s totals. Despite his lame duck status with RCR, Harvick could very well contend for the title this year. Johnson and Co. have been nothing short of terrible lately, and other favorites have obstacles in front of them as well. Kyle Busch has a history of collapsing under the pressure of the Chase, Matt Kenseth is second fiddle at JGR no matter how you slice it, Carl Edwards hasn’t shown winning form since February, and Clint Bowyer hasn’t won all year. Looking at the big picture, Harvick might be in better position than people realize.
If it doesn’t happen for Harvick this year (and the odds are against him simply because of the pending move to SHR), look for him to come out swinging in 2014. He’ll turn 38 in December, and he knows that his window of opportunity is closing, which will only serve to motivate him more. Plus, he’ll be surrounded by champions at SHR, another motivating factor as he will step up his game to join them, especially longtime friend Stewart. And then there’s that Hendrick equipment. It’s reliable—you rarely see a Hendrick engine fail, though to be fair the same can be said of Earnhardt-Childress power plants. It’s fast—Jimmie Johnson didn’t win his five titles in Fred Flintstone’s rockmobile or anything.
As Silly Season reaches a fever pitch, Harvick is probably somewhere laughing. He’s not in the spotlight—for now—and he’s pretty much under the radar in this year’s title talk due to swirling storylines around him. He’s in decent position to make a title run, though odds are, he’ll fall short as his team reorganizes its priorities and focuses on 2014.
Kevin Harvick, despite being the catalyst for this year’s Silly Season, is the forgotten man in the SHR title talk that’s already brewing for 2014. He shouldn’t be. He wants the title, possibly more than anyone else in the garage. He’s got the talent to win it. He’ll have the equipment to win it. It’s entirely possible that next year’s champion will come from the SHR stable…and if it does, my money’s on Harvick to be the one to do it. He may be flying under the radar now, but in a year, he’s looking to be the biggest blip on the screen.
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