NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Turner’s Take: Happy Harvick’s Got Reason to Stay With RCR

For most of the 2009 season, the driver nicknamed “Happy” was as unhappy as any competitor in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage.

Not anymore.

Roll the tape forward to 2010, three races down, and Kevin Harvick is once again living up to the moniker he’s carried for most of his Cup career.

Surprisingly, but perhaps not, Harvick is the points leader as the series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway for race No. 4 of the 36-week campaign. Aside from his absence from victory lane, his season-to-date has been nearly perfect. In three points-paying starts, Harvick has finished no worse than seventh and has twice come home the runner-up to defending series champion Jimmie Johnson.

And while that winless streak continues – now at a career-high 74 races – Harvick has been in serious contention to win each of the first three events of 2010. His closest call actually came in the season-opening Daytona 500, the race in which he led the most laps only to fade to seventh at the finish. Sunday’s outing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was also nothing short of spectacular, as he rallied from a 34th-place starting spot to a near-victory behind Johnson’s No. 48.

For the record: Harvick did win the Budweiser Shootout exhibition race at Daytona, which can’t be counted as a real win, but was a nice boost nonetheless.

It’s truly been a phenomenal start for the driver who suffered through probably his most frustrating season ever in 2009. But through the early season performance of Harvick and his two Richard Childress Racing teammates, it’s become clear that the organization is back on the rise after a year that all involved would rather forget.

The question now is whether Harvick’s resurgence will render last season enough of a memory for the Bakersfield, Calif. native to re-sign with RCR.

Harvick, who joined RCR’s Cup stable in 2001 upon the death of Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500, made it known on more than one occasion last season that he was less than pleased with running mid-pack and that he wouldn’t be satisfied doing so for much longer. He even said at one point that his time with the organization would likely conclude when his contract expires at the end of 2010. But if Harvick is looking for greener pastures, he’s going to be forced to look pretty hard.

RCR’s key principals clearly heard the veteran driver’s call for better cars, and they answered by taking significant steps to evaluate the program and the performance of all three teams (a fourth was eliminated this offseason). To hear Harvick tell it now, the company has actually been on the upswing since last summer – well before the final month of last season, when the first visual evidence of major improvements became manifest.

As for the exact nature of where they’re getting better, though, Harvick has a hard time putting a finger on it.

“You can’t point at one thing, because it was everything but the engines,” he said. “We pretty much started over, and I guess the only thing you can attribute to the success of where everything is is just the hard work. That is really what it boils down to, is that everybody had to basically build new fleets of cars for all three teams to start over with. There are just so many things that have changed: The structure of management has changed, the chassis have changed, the bodies have changed, bump stops, springs. I mean, it just goes on and on and on.”

If Harvick’s run with RCR is to continue beyond 2010, however, a strong start to the season won’t necessarily be enough to keep the 34-year-old happy. The company will need to prove over time that the last few weeks have been no fluke and that it has truly turned the corner.

But if Harvick, who leads the standings by 47 points over teammate Clint Bowyer, is still in a similar position by midseason, he would be foolish to look elsewhere. RCR is a proven, championship-winning organization that, like so many other teams, has endured its share of growing pains since the implementation of the current model Cup car.

Yet all that appears to be history now. If RCR can sustain its performance through half the season – which will include a changeover from the wing on the current car to a more traditional spoiler – Harvick should stay put.

There’s no real room for him at any of the other top organizations, and even if Stewart-Haas Racing expands to three or four cars in 2011, as many observers believe, Harvick will be just as equipped to compete for wins and championships at RCR – a company that has been around a lot longer, and where Harvick has earned all 11 of his Cup victories.

It’s always funny how top finishes have a way of changing a driver’s attitude about his team. So while Harvick has made no commitment to remain at RCR beyond 2010, don’t expect him to go anywhere else anytime soon.

After all, sometimes greener pastures come to you before you can go find them.

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