The Frontstretch: There's No Time Like The Present... Especially With Impending NASCAR Divorces by Thomas Bowles -- Monday October 7, 2013

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We’re taught to live in the here and now; after all, there is no time like the present. But whether you’re at work this Monday morning, sitting in your cubicle bored or simply reading this on your phone, while out for a stroll in the park you’re going to stop for a minute and start daydreaming. The future is a question mark for all of us; our minds are constantly spinning forward. When can I buy my girlfriend’s birthday present? Where can I find that Duck Dynasty costume for Halloween? How can I afford this new house we’re buying? Simple, complex, whatever the questions may be we can’t stop our brains from thinking ahead.

It’s what makes Kevin Harvick’s season, along with Kurt Busch’s so exceptional.

Kevin Harvick’s victory Sunday afternoon was his third in a “lame duck” season. Photo by Rick Lunkenheimer.

Harvick, whose Sunday victory gave him three on the year is a man whose attitude and actions have defied expectations. Once one of NASCAR’s “Bad Boys,” built from the mold of the man he replaced, Dale Earnhardt the common school of thought is 2013 would be a “lame duck” disaster. After all, he unceremoniously dumped the news, in November 2012 he’d be moving on to Stewart-Haas Racing for 2014, pulling the rug out from under his team a good year-plus in advance. Why? We still don’t know all the reasons. Common sense tells us, along with sources after owner Richard Childress had stuck his neck out, on several occasions to help build Harvick’s career it seemed the focus was turning towards the future of the organization: his two grandsons. Harvick saw the writing on the wall, felt “it was time for a change” and chose to get out.

As with any divorce, the first few weeks were contentious. Behind the scenes, communication seemed more like Harvick’s old fights with Greg Biffle or Juan Pablo Montoya than a marriage that would be forced to work for the next 13 months. But driver and owner, once they calmed down pledged to focus on the present, not the future. The media laughed at it; other competitors scoffed. After all, there’s been no “lame duck” championship won in NASCAR’s modern era. The stakes are too high, the feelings too raw. Team members get focused on their future; will they have a job with the upcoming changeover? Who will they be working with, and when? Drivers get distracted, too, either with the burden of sponsorship announcements for their new team or some in-race aggravation that reminded them of why they’re leaving the old. There’s a reason why, in life after couples announce they’re divorcing one person almost always moves out of the house. Why cohabitate with someone you don’t want to be with anymore?

“It’s business, but it’s also you have a sense of pride,” says Harvick about why his No. 29 team has been able to rise above the fray. “You don’t want to do it like everybody else [that’s failed]. You want to go out with a sense of success and everything has gone well.”

That attitude has been tested, multiple times this season including a season-opening Daytona 500 wreck that left Harvick 42nd. The next seven races produced just one top-10 finish, despite a number of runs from 12th to 15th that left you thinking this team was just going to fade off into the sunset, waiting for the word grandson number one, Austin Dillon would join the ranks – perhaps ten races early. But then came Richmond, this Spring and a wild restart where Harvick took advantage of a jumbled running order. It was green… white… checkered… Victory Lane, a shocking surprise that seems to have turned their 2013 around ever since. In typical “Closer” fashion, the driver led just three laps, out of 406 but did enough to ensure he was in front for the final one.

“It’s just a lot of work,” Harvick said then, admitting the team still had hard feelings heading into the Spring. “What are we working on this week? What track are we going to? What do we do to make it better? You try to do that week after week. You lose track of time. You lose track of everything that’s going on because you’re so buried in what we do on a week-to-week basis.”

Success allows you to bury those emotions, along with giving 110 percent. That type of effort is what Kurt Busch was going through, at the start of 2013 with his career and long-term future on the line. Paired with a single-car team, Furniture Row Racing, his job was to take a No. 78 car that had won just once, in eight years and bring it all the way into the Chase. Considering the stats, it was a daunting task, made even more complicated by the spoils of success. For as Busch started pushing, bringing the team to the forefront with a flurry of top-5 finishes other top teams came calling for his services. By the summer, the outcome was clear; in turning down an extension, Busch would be spending 2014 racing elsewhere.

“[Owner] Barney Visser has done a tremendous job at making us a player, something that competes with the big dogs,” Busch said in August. “It’s taught me a lot about myself on how to understand disappointment better, and it’s also taught me a lot about how to help with crew members when they stumble or they trip on something, to be there for them.”

Clearly, a Colorado team, with underdog status allowed Busch to cure the ills of public missteps, from Dr. Jerry Punch to R-Rated pit crew rants that derailed a career wit the sport’s top teams. But the driver’s way of “being there” for his crew was to compliment them, wildly during a press conference announcing he’ll abandon them this November for Stewart-Haas Racing. In the end, Busch felt the equipment, engineering, and chassis support would always be a step below what he could receive somewhere else.

Those hurt feelings, like in Harvick’s case could have prevented a run to the Chase. Instead, both made it in, with Busch making history as the only single-car team to do so under NASCAR’s current playoff format. The No. 78 squeaked by, while the No. 29 earned a second victory, at Charlotte in May and was able to coast through most of the summer. But how they got there has been proven irrelevant. Amazingly, they’ve stayed on the fringes of contention, one and the same exception to the rule which makes their 1-2 finish at Kansas Sunday all the more impressive.

“To have as many top 10s as we do and top 5s, there’s no reason to stop once we made the Chase,” explained Busch, who’s overcome some pit crew problems to sit seventh in points, 47 behind leader Matt Kenseth. “We’ve put up statistics to run right around fourth to seventh this year, and I want to just go out as strong as I can for this group.”

“This might be just a David versus Goliath story, but at the same time, this Furniture Row team has put in the investment into the cars, into the people, and here we are posting top 5s.”

Harvick, whose win pulled him up to third in points has a more confident view on things. Here we are, heading to Charlotte, and the No. 29 is in position for a season sweep. Win there, even with Johnson and Kenseth close behind and this title becomes a very different three-man race in the second half. Harvick will be within 20 points of the lead.

“We’re committed to try to win the championship,” Childress said in Victory Lane on Sunday. “We owe it to our sponsors and our fans to give them 100 percent, and that’s what we agreed to do, and that’s what we’re going to do until Homestead.”

Somehow, someway these men are ignoring the impending divorces right in front of them. They’re living in the here and now. It still seems a championship trophy, in either of their futures seems a longshot at best. But it was a mistake to write them off several months ago.

It might be a mistake now, too.

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jerseygirl
10/07/2013 01:19 PM
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Not a Kurt Busch fan, probably never will be, but it has been an impressive effort for him and the team.

I’ve always liked Harvick, even though he’s not the guy I root for each week, but I give him credit and also Childress for being able to get this done. I’d rather enjoy it if Harvick won the 10 race trophy. I’d be far happier with that outcome than either of the alternatives of Johnson winning another one or a Toyota team winning it.

Grumpy
10/07/2013 11:17 PM
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Kudos to both Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress for being the commensurate professionals. Best wishes to both in their future endeavors.

 

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