The Frontstretch: Harvick's Potential Move To Stewart-Haas Racing Has Long-Lasting Implications by Vito Pugliese -- Thursday July 16, 2009

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Kevin Harvick may have just pulled the pin on the Silly Season grenade.

It used to be late summer and fall when the rumor mill would heat up with stories of defections, sponsor swaps, or new teams entering the fray for the coming year. Nowadays, it usually begins just about the time the first Gatorade 150-mile qualifying race is completed in Daytona — but this year has been a bit of a throwback, as it’s once again taken until the heat of mid-July before those dominoes really started to topple. The first of the big ones came on Tuesday, when word came Kevin Harvick has asked to be released from the final year of his contract with Richard Childress Racing — a move expected to trigger a switch to Stewart-Haas Racing, choosing to pair with former Nationwide Series employee Tony Stewart for 2010 and beyond.

Should it happen, the move is a curious one, and begs a very legitimate question.

Why?

Kevin Harvick has been behind the wheel of the No. 29 RCR Chevrolets since 2001, following the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. on the final lap of the Daytona 500. With Harvick sliding into the seat vacated by a hero to millions, it took only three weeks for him to take the Goodwrench team back to Victory Lane with a photo finish over Jeff Gordon at Atlanta – one that was an eerie mirror image of Dale Earnhardt’s win at the same race one year earlier. Harvick’s win, while surprising, was some much-needed medicine for a team and nation of fans who were left crushed by the sudden departure of a man once thought invincible. The car may have been a white No. 29, but there was still black paint that remained underneath.

A second win at the inaugural Chicagoland Speedway followed a few months later, as did a memorable quote from the late Bobby Hamilton, who declared after a run-in with Harvick at Martinsville, “You have a guy who thinks he’s Dale Earnhardt because he’s in Earnhardt’s car. But he isn’t a pimple on Dale Earnhardt’s butt.”

And so it has been from that point on that the Bakersfield, CA driver has developed into his own man, a bit of a polarizing figure in Sprint Cup racing. Whether it was stomping across Greg Biffle’s car to grab a handful of firesuit following a run-in during a Nationwide Series race, or doing the same across the hood of Ricky Rudd’s Wood Brothers Ford at Richmond in 2003, his hot-headed antics have been celebrated by some while derided and cited by his detractors. Often given to smarmy interviews or curt responses, Harvick’s quips make Kyle Busch’s interviews look thoughtful and introspective in comparison. Yet while he has never missed the opportunity to laugh or smile at his own joke or comment, the man’s skills outside of the car have always seemed to rival those behind the wheel. The fact that his car owner Richard Childress was a former driver who decided to focus on an ownership role allowed more than a couple of parallels to be drawn between the two, particularly with the success in recent years of Harvick’s self-owned Nationwide and Truck Series operations.

With wife DeLana in matching firesuit by his side, one of Sprint Cup’s most visible couples has established Kevin Harvick, Incorporated as one of the top teams in the Truck Series in particular, capturing 21 wins to date and a title in 2007 with Ron Hornaday, Jr. Currently, Hornaday leads the standings once again and is a prime candidate to leave Homestead with his second title in just three years. Meanwhile, driving in the Nationwide Series, Harvick won his first race as an owner/driver at Bristol in March, and in the past he’s tallied up a total of four wins — including two Daytona 300 victories — with Tony Stewart at the controls of his No. 33 Chevrolets. So, while contemplating retirement at age 33 would be almost unfathomable at this stage in the game, Harvick has clearly positioned himself in the best possible situation for a life after racing – or to become an owner/driver as competitive as Tony Stewart has done is such a short period of time after he bought into the Gene-Haas owned racing team a little less than one year ago.

During his tenure at Richard Childress Racing, Harvick has always been known as a steady and solid driver, collecting 11 career wins to go along with three top 5 points finishes. While never a serious contender for the Sprint Cup, he has succeeded in winning NASCAR’s two biggest races, the Brickyard 400 in 2003 and the controversial last-lap fracas of the 2007 Daytona 500. His best season was 2006, where he won five times that year and finished fourth in the final standings. Clearly, while RCR may not be at the forefront of championship contention and be as consistent a race winner as it was during the Wrangler days — or even as they have been in the Nationwide ranks — RCR is still among the elite Chevrolet teams in NASCAR and has as impressive and solid a driver lineup as any team in the garage. Just last year, all three of their full-time teams made the 12-man Chase for the Championship — Harvick’s No. 29 listed among them.

A regular stream of wrecks and mechanical failures have helped Kevin Harvick slip to a career-worst 25th in the season standings so far in 2009.

With that being said, why move from arguably one of the flagship Chevrolet teams to be the third driver at your buddy’s race team? Despite SHR’s surprising success, it’s a move that comes with plenty of question marks should Harvick choose to move from RCR’s main squeeze to being the third man on the totem pole somewhere else.

Well, to figure out that answer, I think you need to look no further than his burgeoning KHI operation described above. For with this move, Kevin Harvick is setting himself up for what will be the next changing of the guard in NASCAR – in ownership.

One only needs to take a look at the major players signing the checks to see that they aren’t getting any younger. Tony Stewart, at age 38, is by far the most youthful and the first of the new generation of young, successful drivers to make the transition. Rick Hendrick just celebrated his 60th birthday this past Saturday night, and Joe Gibbs will do the same next year. Ford man Jack Roush observed his 67th birthday three months ago – a birthday that might not have happened had there not been a former Marine diver on hand when his plane crashed into a lake seven years ago. The King just observed his 72nd birthday by driving his No. 43 STP Pontiac around Daytona one more time a couple of weeks back, while Roger Penske, fresh off his 15th Indianapolis 500 win and acquisition of an American car company, is also 72 years of age.

With that in mind, there will have to be new ownership coming into the series at some point; it’s the natural evolution of life and sport. And like any other billion-dollar enterprise, the time to get in on the action is in the beginning, well in advance of when the openings likely come within the next decade or so.

I have suggested in the past that Harvick would be the next driver to start his own team, as he already does have the experience and somewhat of an infrastructure in place. I had always believed with that goal in mind, he would one day become an extension of RCR, or form a strategic alliance much like Hendrick has with Stewart-Haas Racing.

But with the economics of motorsports (and the country, for that matter) being what they are at the moment, perhaps now is simply not the right time for such a move. Much like Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s reluctance to move to the Sprint Cup Series with his JR Motorsports team, Harvick’s KHI operation may not be ready for prime time just yet. While he’s seen the inner workings of RCR for the better part of the last decade, a glimpse into how Stewart works as an owner and a driver, as well as how his Hendrick-themed enterprise operates and thrives at the Sprint Cup level, may be exactly what he needs to figure out how to make that next step. Harvick may also take a page from the driver he succeeded at RCR, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., who brought DEI into Cup racing while driving for a team owner who was also his best friend.

Of course, that scenario would become an easy transition, as “Happy” moves into a shop occupied by none other than his racing buddy Stewart.

At SHR, Harvick would also have a trusted friend as a teammate (that little incident at Indy two years ago notwithstanding), a relationship that Stewart currently enjoys with Ryan Newman – and one that he also credits to the success he has experienced so far that virtually nobody thought possible. It also aligns him with the most dominant force in NASCAR today, Hendrick Motorsports, not-so-quietly asserting themselves as a level above RCR this year. Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin aren’t going to drive forever (well…Mark might…), and who are you going to replace two certifiable legends in the sport with over time? Considering Harvick had to take over for arguably the greatest driver in the sport’s history, whose name is mentioned in the same breath as Richard Petty — under circumstances that only a select few would have been able to cope with — he’d be a viable candidate when the man behind the wheel of the No. 24 feels like he’s had enough. And should Harvick not want to make the plunge into Sprint Cup ownership, driving one of the fastest cars in the series since its 1993 debut is a pretty strong alternative plan.

So, while many were pointing to Brad Keselowski as the one who might set the dominoes to tumbling should he make the move to Cup full-time in 2010, it actually appears that Kevin Harvick will be the catalyst to the Silly Season chain reaction that is about to reach critical mass.

Now, we’ll just have to see if and when it actually happens.

Editor’s Note: It’s important to note the commentary you’ve just read was written prior to Richard Childress’ official statement on the Kevin Harvick situation. While sources continue to claim Harvick will wriggle out of his contract for SHR, here’s what the car owner put out in a press release yesterday…

Richard Childress Racing has a multi-year contract with Shell-Pennzoil that includes the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. Shell-Pennzoil remains a great partner for RCR and Kevin Harvick as well as our sport overall. RCR also has a multi-year contract with Kevin Harvick that includes the 2010 season. That said, Shell will be the sponsor and Kevin will be the driver of RCR’s No. 29 Shell-Pennzoil Chevrolet Impala SS in 2010.

We’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions from there.

Contact Vito Pugliese

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Michael
07/16/2009 07:03 AM
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You really think Harvick is waiting on Gordon to retire so he can take over the 24 ??? That would be a step down from an SHR ride . If Harvick does indeed go to SHR , he would be wise to stay there , they’ve proven to be a better team than Gordons .

FunkyD
07/16/2009 07:58 AM
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They may be best friends, but I wouldn’t put Kevin in an SHR ride just yet…

So far, Tony has proved his ability to hire the right people is about as good as his racing skills. He will have to think long and hard about this one. Ryan’s hire was easy, as he’s always struck me as a better driver than his equipment. If it weren’t for a lot of bad luck this year, he’d be 2nd or 3rd in the points and not 7th.

Kevin is a little tougher to figure out. He has had flashes of brilliance, but can be inconsistent. Tony should make sure he makes a business decision here.

Either way, sponsorship is critical here. Tony needs one to launch a 3rd car (and I don’t think that’s a given like a lot of writers are thinking). Kevin would have to bring one with him. If he can’t, I don’t see this happening.

Just take it easy, Tony. Time is on your side right now.

Bill B
07/16/2009 09:33 AM
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Some people crack me up. “ If Harvick does indeed go to SHR , he would be wise to stay there , they’ve proven to be a better team than Gordons .”
Gordon was leading the points until Dover (I think) now Stewart has been leading for 8 weeks… and that suffices as proof that SHR is better than HMS. LOL that is just wrong on so many levels. So 8 weeks proves everything. Hope you are never my lawyer.

I’ll just say this… I hope NASCAR toughens up on the ploy these megateams are using to skirt around the 4 team maximum. Let’s see how great SHR is when they can’t get HMS engines or chasis.

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
07/16/2009 09:53 AM
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Bill –

I think something was misconstrued during the editorial process. I do not believe that the No. 14 team is superior to the No. 24, however I do believe that the No. 5 and No. 24 are two of the most competative cars in the series, and would be a step up from virtually any team in the field.

Tony
07/16/2009 10:00 AM
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Harvick has already resigned with RCR yesterday. Yesterday! How about some investigative work before posting.

Bill B
07/16/2009 10:19 AM
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Vito, forgive me for not being clear. My post was not directed at you, it was directed at the first poster Michael. Your article was fine. Sorry for the confusion.

JohnK
07/16/2009 10:40 AM
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Hey Tony, how could Harvick resign yesterday when he is out of the country vacationing with his wife??? And Bill B, SHR is already building a shop to build their own chassis and engines….Tony will be fine without Hendrick.

Ellen
07/16/2009 10:55 AM
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SHR might be the hottest team now, but once they decide to do everything in-house, they may go through a couple of years of growing pains.

I like the idea of Harvick taking over the 24 – he certainly has handled the pressure of stepping into a much higher-profile ride under horrendous circumstances, so taking over the 24 would be a walk in the park. And if Gordon has to retire in the next year or two because of his back, the timing coule be right.

Mark
07/16/2009 11:20 AM
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In fact , the most powerfull engines over the years in the NASCAR dyno tests have usually been the Gibbs engines , both Chevy and Toyota . So if Tony were to stop using the Hendrick engines , it may not be all that big of a handicap . From what i’ve seen of his team building ability , only a fool would doubt that he could be just as competitive using his own engines and chassis .

Bill B
07/16/2009 11:24 AM
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Still, it would take time to ramp up and engine and chasis department. Go back and look up how it went for Joe Gibbs when he switched from leasing HMS engines to building his own.

Adam
07/16/2009 11:47 AM
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Nice article Vito. One of the most interesting looks at the Harvick story since the news broke.

I agree with the thought that if the economy was better Harvick would be looking a little harder at moving his own operation into the Cup series. But as it stands now it might be a better time to align himself up with two of the more competive teams in NASCAR right now with Hendricks and Stewart Haas.

Kevin in SoCal
07/16/2009 12:29 PM
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Vito said: “the first of the new generation of young, successful drivers to make the transition.”

I know you said young and successful, but doesnt Michael Waltrip Racing count first?

Racehorse
07/16/2009 06:12 PM
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Excellent article, Tony.

You kids quit fussing over nothing or we’ll spank you!! Behave!

Tony can make the transition, if necessary, to new engine and chassis. Look how successful Gibbs was the first year of Toyota and the first year of the prodigal Kyle Busch. Believe me, the most talented engine and chassis people are waiting in the wings for a chance to work for Tony.

. . . just like the remarkable talent he’s already assembled.

I expect his team to become a dynasty in NASCAR, Hendrick or not. Tony has the right stuff, and we may be seeing the results of the lack of it at Gibbs.

I’m just sayin . . .

Sharon J
07/16/2009 06:41 PM
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Harvick seems to do well in his own cars in Nationwide. Maybe RCR should try giving him and also the other RCR drivers decent cars and maybe they wouldn’t want to leave. I can not imagine fighting a bad car every week. That has to be depressing.

Rich
07/17/2009 12:45 AM
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Interesting read here. There’s obviously real discontent at RCR this year and a tremendous amount of acrimony going on which no doubt has fueled the fall off the cliff for the organization. Some of RC’s recent decisions have really hurt the teams. Recall him shaking up a solid team over the winter to start the 33 car. Then laughably Richard swapped the crews between the 29 and the 07 instead of looking for the real cause of the poor performance. Recently the 29 car was seen at KHI on the pull down rack in search of some answers. They’ve retraced some of their performance gains but wrecks have hampered any good results. Kevin has put up with sub par cars at RCR for many years now. History shows RCR hasn’t had the ability to field a championship car since Earnhardt drove. It’s time Kevin changes chemistry and leaves the RCR organization as it’ll take a long time to rebuild the teams into championship winning form again. Kevin doesn’t have the time and shouldn’t have to pay that price. The guy can drive and knows how to win races and a championship. He needs better resources than what RCR can give. If RC thinks he can hold Kevin with a contract through next year all he has to do is look at this years results and realize that next year could be worse. It’s really in the driver’s hands now. The press release was a reminder that Childress wants (and needs) money to continue RCR operations. RC needs to decide if he wants to be the face of the NRA, run a winery or field a championship winning Cup team again. Pick one Richard.

slander libel
07/18/2009 03:53 AM
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@Kevin in SoCal:

I think the key word here is “successful”…

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