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The Cool-Down Lap: Harvick’s Success Has Come in Unorthodox Ways

Part of the allure of Kevin Harvick to race fans is how he bucks trends. The 34-year-old Bakersville, Calif. native won in just his third start in 2001, launching a Cup career following the death of Dale Earnhardt by adding a Daytona 500, an All-Star Race, three Chase appearances and a Brickyard 400 win to his growing resume. He has also won two Nationwide Series championships, becoming the first full-time Cup driver to successfully “double dip,” with 35 career victories in that division (second-most all-time). And, oh yeah, in an era where active drivers have often struggled as owners in other series, he has two Truck Series championships as the owner… excuse me, co-owner, of Ron Hornaday’s No. 33 entry.

But Harvick has achieved stock car superstardom in the unlikeliest of ways.

To understand how unique his story is in this era, one must take a step back and look at the future for racing prospects today. As part of my foray into the racing world, I do podcasts for Bill Elliott’s son, Chase, and his fellow Bill Elliott Racing driver Casey Roderick. Chase is 14, Casey is 17, and both know that they need more than talent behind the wheel to move up the stock car ranks. Elliott and Roderick each, despite their young ages, have received training from BER matriarch Cindy Elliott (Chase’s mom) as she handles the public relations work for the team (a position she once did for her husband Bill). When I interview these two teenagers, they are always very gracious, never place blame on anybody for on-track incidents, and always thank their sponsors and teams. Both might not have graduated high school yet, but they’ve already got a degree in how to represent a Fortune 500 company going forward.

For many, this professionalism can be seen as a “vanilla” method of handling the media, but it also helps deflect any negativity that potentially could be reflected on the team. And with sponsorship at even more of a premium in NASCAR’s formative racing series, producing positive spin is a must. But that’s a style that could never be used by the independent-thinking, fiery Harvick if he were in their shoes – and in reality, shunning that would, in 2010, close the doors of opportunity he seized with that edginess almost a decade ago.

Why? Because Harvick has shown throughout his career, in several documented instances, he shows no mercy in knocking the “positive spin” NASCAR world off its axis sponsors now crave. Time and time again, Harvick has made moves on and off the track or made on-the-record statements that certainly should have been to his detriment – creating situations that have often turned into PR nightmares for many a driver. But while the man behind the wheel of No. 29 has still come short of reaching his ultimate goal – a Cup championship – he has still dodged each one of these bullets to remain virtually unscathed.

But it hasn’t been easy. No doubt, Harvick had a dream season in his breakout year of 2001. Just two weeks after tragically inheriting fallen legend Earnhardt’s No. 3 GM Goodwrench ride, he took the newly-branded No. 29 Chevrolet to victory lane in a dramatic drag race to the finish line at Atlanta Motor Speedway with Jeff Gordon, then NASCAR’s top driver. He went on to win a second Cup race in 2001 (Chicagoland) and also took home his first Nationwide Series championship by scoring an astonishing 20 top-five finishes, beating out part-time Cup Series teammate Jeff Green in the process. But despite the team affiliation between Harvick and Green, the intense points battles and both drivers’ lack of give-and-take toward one another erupted into more than one public spat. After one such incident, Harvick made reference to Green’s NNS sponsor NesQuik, saying, “I guess he drank too much chocolate milk and his stomach hurt.”

The conflict would not be the last between the two. Instead, it was part of a three-year tenure where Green was haunted by the hatred of a teammate who, instead of working with him, dedicated himself to ensuring his time with RCR ended in divorce.

But there were plenty of other issues haunting Harvick himself. One week after the NesQuik incident, his impatience and hard-headedness prompted him to spin out ex-Cup driver Chad Little in a Nationwide Series race, a move which in turn sent Little into the garage to confront Harvick. A fistfight ensued, and NASCAR fined the Sprint Cup rookie $10,000.

It was those continuing scrapes with the establishment in 2001 that brought forth Brad Keselowski-like gripes from Cup veterans, saying “Happy” was driving over his head in a car he inherited only by an untimely death of a legend. Indeed, irked by a late-season wreck spurred by Harvick, the late Bobby Hamilton said the youngster was trying too hard to be like his predecessor Earnhardt. But when the smoke lifted, it was Harvick who initially had the last laugh: he ended his Cup season ninth in points and poised for superstardom.

The controversy and confrontations, though, did not subside for him in 2002. As Harvick was struggling through his sophomore Cup season, NASCAR suspended the driver at Martinsville that spring after he intentionally spun Coy Gibbs in the Truck Series race the day before. The incident occurred just one week after Harvick had also infamously charged and appeared to begin choking Greg Biffle, angry following an on-track scrape in the Nationwide Series race at Bristol. Like no other year before or since, the off-track distractions affected on-track performance: Harvick’s lone bright spot all year was his second straight victory at Chicagoland, and even that came with its own mini-controversy. While mounting an impressive comeback to win, Harvick still had to rebound from an early spin in front of the field after trying to pass several cars on the apron. This move drew public outcry from, among others, Gordon, leaving Harvick on the cusp of superstardom but simply unable to achieve it.

In 2003, Harvick rebounded in the points standings to fifth after a disappointing 21st the year before, but this resurgence did not mount without more conflict. During the May race at Richmond, Harvick once again got into teammate and aforementioned foe Green. With Green’s night done, he motioned at Harvick on the racetrack, and then bounded into the pits to confront No. 29 crew chief Todd Berrier. Green then told TV reporters, “Tough to be teammates when it seems like there’s only one car at RCR.” Richard Childress fired Green two days later. Later in June, Robby Gordon, Harvick’s other RCR teammate, took advantage of Harvick slowing down coming to the yellow flag to pass him for the lead (this was in the pre-Lucky Dog days, when racing back to the yellow was allowed). Harvick publicly called it a “chicken move under yellow,” causing a rift in a second relationship that would lead to Gordon’s departure one year later. Perhaps most noteworthy of all, though, was when Harvick got spun out by Ricky Rudd late in the September Richmond race. That prompted him to pin Rudd’s No. 21 Ford in on pit road and then jump on his hood, a move which ignited a brawl amongst the two pit crews.

Big things were expected of Harvick after that year, one in which he nearly overtook Matt Kenseth for the season title. Yet 2004 and 2005 saw all of RCR, including Harvick, struggle mightily. In that span, the No. 29 team only managed 14th in points both years with one lone win. The inconsistency sparked Silly Season rumors about his future, the wildest of which had owner Richard Childress proposing a straight-up trade with Chip Ganassi to get disgruntled driver Jamie McMurray in exchange for a similarly unhappy Harvick. And when the going got tough, Harvick continued to take frustration out on others; among the missteps were some on-track aggression with Kenseth in Pocono in 2004 and, very notably, with Joe Nemechek at the All-Star Race in 2005. After that crash, the two drivers began shoving each other in the infield grass.

With free agency pending for Harvick after 2006, Harvick and Childress inked out a multi-year deal early in the season, and Harvick backed that up with a comeback year. He piloted the No. 29 Chevy, in its last year with GM Goodwrench colors, to career highs in wins (five), top fives (15) and top 10s (20) while landing his first berth in the Chase. He then went on to win the 2007 Daytona 500, his last points win to date. It seemed a new influx of teammates, including the calm, collected Jeff Burton, had replaced some of the fight in Harvick with newfound maturity.

Or not. Later in 2007, Harvick and then-rookie Juan Pablo Montoya got into a shouting and shoving match at Watkins Glen after a poor on-track move by him left the newly converted open-wheel driver steaming. He never recovered, barely squeaking into the Chase and stumbling to a 10th-place finish in points.

The list of PR nightmares has simply continued from there. Harvick trashed Carl Edwards in a TV interview after the No. 99 caused a big wreck in the October Talladega race in 2008, calling the Roush Fenway driver a “pansy.” Edwards then left a nasty note in the seat of Harvick’s airplane, cursing the driver for publicly disparaging him on-air. That led to a confrontation in the garage the following weekend, where Edwards’s approach led to a fight breaking out between the two. Eventually, photographs came out in the media, showing Harvick reaching for Edwards’s throat during that scuffle.

As a fed-up Harvick toiled through the worst season of his career in 2009, reports surfaced that he wanted out at RCR a year early and that sponsor Shell wanted to go with him. Childress, obviously miffed that the driver he made famous was turning his back on him and causing such unrest in the Welcome, N.C. shop, went on the defensive and said that neither Harvick or Shell were leaving the No. 29 team early. Still, Harvick’s departure seemed a foregone conclusion as 2010 began, although things now are turning around at RCR. Harvick is leading the points through four races, and seems on the brink of his first win in over two years. His once highly demeaning and critical rhetoric about his race team has cooled down, and there now are murmurs that he may stay.

So in light of the debate over whether both Edwards and Keselowski have handled their situation amongst themselves and with other drivers in the right manner, remember that the career paths of Harvick and others such as Tony Stewart have blossomed under the cloud of even more controversy. And while the general belief is that NASCAR drivers can only succeed in the conformed, uniform way Jimmie Johnson has (and let us face it, he is the best right now), Harvick has gone the furthest, whether intentionally or not, to buck that trend. So in this supposed new era of driver edginess, in a time where fans are begging for saltiness in the bland NASCAR landscape, pressuring drivers to always aim for the straight and narrow may get them a sponsor – but it will not always glean long-term success for the sport.

Just ask champion team owner and Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick and his legions of fans.

Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory this Saturday, from 12-2 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts the “Chase Elliott Podcast” and the “Bill Elliott Racing Podcast” on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.

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