The Frontstretch: The Cool-Down Lap: The Domino Effect If Unhappy Harvick Had Gotten His Way by Doug Turnbull -- Monday August 30, 2010

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Rewind back to mid-July of 2009. Kevin Harvick, the Sprint Cup Series championship leader for most of the 2010 season, sat 25th in points and winless for two-and-a-half years. His and the rest of Richard Childress Racing’s teams’ seasons were long down the toilet, destined to miss the Chase for the first time since 2005. Frustrated and at the end of his rope, Harvick felt that decisions behind the scenes to cure RCR’s ills were not being made. He was butting heads with those around him, including the same owner who gave him a chance just days after the death of Childress’ best friend, Dale Earnhardt, in 2001. While the reports will never be clear on what the exact conversations were, Harvick reportedly asked out of his contract to drive for RCR the following season. Reports also stated that primary sponsor Shell/Pennzoil wanted to walk with him.

But Childress would have none of it. Instead of taking a conservative approach and letting a disgruntled driver leave the team to avoid a potential poisonous situation, “RC” put his foot down, claiming he would compel both Harvick and Shell to honor their contracts. And looking back, why wouldn’t he? Shell’s sponsorship was a full package worth millions, and Harvick was a star driver. Childress needed both pieces if he was to steer his company back in the right direction.

Now, snap back to the present. Harvick leads the Sprint Cup championship standings by nearly 300 points, has three wins, and is a threat for a top-10 finish even on a bad day. Even when that lead evaporates when the Chase starts next month, Harvick’s consistency makes him the favorite to capture the Sprint Cup Series title in November. But what if Harvick had gotten his way? What if Childress had let him walk, much like he urged a young Earnhardt to do in the early 1980s before the duo reunited for six championships? The story of 2010 would be far different, a domino effect collapsing within an entire Sprint Cup garage.

When Harvick’s demand to Childress became known, rumors circulated that his destination was to a third team at Stewart-Haas Racing. There was zero chance that Childress would have let Shell out from under its contract early, so Harvick was going to need backing if he were to land another ride. Harvick, though, has rarely encountered trouble putting together sponsorship packages for his truck and Nationwide teams at Kevin Harvick, Incorporated. Maybe a combination of some of those sponsors, plus some clever marketing help from SHR could fully fund a ride for Harvick during the 2010 season.

If the sponsorships from the Nationwide and Truck Series followed Harvick, they come at the expense of the KHI rides in those series, meaning that drivers like Shelby Howard, Ken Schrader, and Elliott Sadler in the Truck Series (it is doubtful that Harvick would shut down the championship No. 33 Truck team of Ron Hornaday, despite a lack of funding) and Mike Bliss, Hornaday, and Max Papis in the Nationwide Series would not have the chances to race in good KHI equipment, as less sponsorship would likely result in reduced schedules for the programs in each series. While Hornaday, Bliss, and Schrader are somewhat re-tread drivers who are not looking to climb the NASCAR ranks, Sadler found new life in Harvick’s truck, even winning recently at Pocono. Sadler’s success with KHI has led him to being open to accepting a ride in a lesser series, as his Sprint Cup tenure with Richard Petty Motorsports will end after this season and there are no other promising Cup prospects for the struggling, veteran driver.

Scenes like this one may never have happened if a conversation between Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress in 2009 had gone differently.

If indeed Harvick did ink a deal with SHR for the 2010 season, the discussion over Kasey Kahne’s destination would have taken a different turn. With the potential seat at SHR filled by Harvick and Kahne still under contract at RPM thru 2010, Kahne would have had his options limited in his free agency search. Kahne had been in discussion with Hendrick since late in the 2009 season and reportedly could also not get a deal done with Joe Gibbs Racing. Seeing his chance to join the Hendrick umbrella at SHR decrease, Kahne and Gibbs may have felt in their discussions that they had a better chance to get a deal done and may have pulled it off. If Kahne snubs a promise from Hendrick to put him in the No. 5 Chevy in 2012 for a chance to be with an equally competitive team in 2011, then Hendrick’s search to replace Mark Martin takes a different turn that we, the media, do not begin speculating about until, say, April 2011. That, in turn, takes some pressure away from Martin that he has been feeling since the Kahne story broke in April 2010.

With a fully-sponsored seat in the No. 29 open in 2010, Childress has to find a replacement. With few quality drivers available and the sponsorship from Jack Daniel’s departing from the No. 07, Casey Mears would get another breath of life into his career, as he would take the keys of the No. 29. If Shell balked at the idea of Mears, then free agent Jamie McMurray would likely have landed there. McMurray, if he had had the choice in the 2009 offseason, would likely have picked Richard Childress Racing over Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, because A.) he tried to get the No. 33 ride for the 2009 season, but Roush Fenway decided not to fire him from the No. 26 ride late in the season and B.) sponsor Bass Pro Shops, remember, did not initially want McMurray in the No. 1 Chevy. If McMurray had landed in a resurging No. 29, he may not have won the Daytona 500 this year or be leading the standings as Harvick is in the car now, but he surely would be inside the Chase bracket and a darkhorse favorite to win the title.

Harvick, meanwhile, secure in what is supposed to be an elite ride would have endured struggles in his first season at SHR. With the growing pains of a new team combined with the downturn in performance for both Hendrick Motorsports and SHR, Harvick would languish in the back of the top 15 in the standings and likely get eliminated from Chase contention after the Labor Day Atlanta race. He also would remain winless, as Stewart and Newman have this year – save for one green-white-checkered miracle for the No. 39 Chevy at Phoenix in April.

And if all other 2010 results remained the same, who would be left to lead the points: a winless Jeff Gordon.

Fortunately for RCR and Harvick, they worked out their differences. Performance at the Welcome, NC shop and at the racetrack turned around late in 2009 and finishes improved. Harvick still seemed unsure about staying with the team, and his future there seemed dim as sponsor Shell announced it was leaving for Penske Racing in April. But then Harvick won Talladega, and smiles started to show. Kahne’s pending departure from RPM made Budweiser a free-agent sponsor that eventually signed to adorn Harvick’s No. 29 in August. And here we are. Harvick is happy again. Childress has trophies again. The two will combine to field Truck and Nationwide teams next season. And Harvick is looking to interrupt Jimmie Johnson’s drive for five straight championships by reaching around and finding that horseshoe.

But my, how things could have been different…

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08/30/2010 11:34 AM

The current state of affaires are confusing enough. This “what if” speculation was a fun read but not close to the way things are turning out.

08/30/2010 12:12 PM

There is also another scenerio that you didn’t mention. With a ride open at Childress and Kahne moving on from RPM, he could have very well ended up with Childress instead of Casey Mears like you suggested.

Your right though. Quite the domino affect once one thing happens.

08/30/2010 11:06 PM

Ryan Newman won at Phoenix in April this year.

Managing Editors
08/31/2010 01:06 AM

Thanks Walter! Ryan Newman’s win feels like so long ago, sometimes it’s easy to forget it was only this April when he pulled it out … the column has been adjusted.