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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Kevin Harvick’s Potential Move To Stewart-Haas Racing Has Long-Lasting Implications

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 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?

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 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, Calif. 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 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 RCR, Harvick has always been known as a steady and solid driver, collecting 11 career wins to go along with three top-five 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.

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. 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 SHR.

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, 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. 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’s 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.