NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: What a Difference a Year Makes for Budweiser… & Kevin Harvick, Too

The term “Silly Season” could have been labeled “Watershed Week” over the last 10 days, with a series of major announcements regarding drivers, sponsors, and schedule alignments for 2011 and beyond. From Kasey Kahne being loaned out to Red Bull Racing for a year, to the date swaps between Atlanta, Auto Club Speedway, Kansas and Kentucky, to Marcos Ambrose‘s signing with Richard Petty Motorsports, the hits have come fast and furious.

Yesterday, the answer to the sponsorship dilemma of the Sprint Cup Series points leader was revealed, as Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress announced that Budweiser will the primary sponsor for RCR’s flagship No. 29 through 2013.

The fabled beer brand will be on the flanks of Harvick’s Chevrolets for 20 races next season, as well as the Bud Shootout in Daytona and the All-Star Race in Charlotte.

“Budweiser is one of the most respected sponsors in our sport,” Harvick said during a press conference to announce the move. “They do a lot to market their teams and the sport during television broadcasts and away from the track. I’m looking forward to driving the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet, taking it to victory lane and winning championships.”

The fact that Harvick and Childress were both on hand together with the famed Clydesdales was in and of itself a minor miracle. In fact, this notion just a year ago seemed delusional at best – and even six months ago would have been considered unlikely.

2009 was a miserable season for Harvick, one that produced all of nine top 10s and a 19th-place points finish. Highlighting an increasing level of dysfunctionality within the team was a particularly testy exchange during the August race at Michigan last season, where Harvick was so unimpressed with his car that he remarked over the radio, “I can’t believe people get paid to work on it.” When Richard Childress tried to put things into perspective, his driver replied, “I’m tired of listening to your excuses, Richard,” which brought a terse reply from the owner: “I will be talking to you buddy, later.”

At least Harvick didn’t call Childress “dude.”

Fast-forward to Michigan race number two of 2010, and it’s as if Harvick and the entire RCR organization don’t even remotely resemble the same team that was close to imploding exactly one year prior – or even just a few months ago. Before the 2010 season even began, Harvick issued some cryptic comments when questioned about his plans for 2011.

“I’m not getting in the middle of it,” he quipped. “What it all boils down to… it’s all about winning races, and that’s all I care about. We’re going to come into the season, and we’re going to race a lot this year, and we’re going to have fun. That’s my main goal… to have fun. How it all plays out, I couldn’t tell you.”

That ringing endorsement sounded about as enthusiastic as current Budweiser pilot Kahne when asked if he would remain with Richard Petty Motorsports following the 2010 season – and we all know how that worked out.

Early in this year’s campaign, speculation ran wild that Harvick would be the third entry of owner/driver and longtime friend Tony Stewart‘s stable at Stewart-Haas Racing, or even move his own KHI Nationwide effort up to the Cup level. Further fuel was thrown on the fire when it became common knowledge that sponsor Shell/Pennzoil would leave RCR to go to Penske Racing at the conclusion of the year. During this same time, it was reported that Harvick had burned nearly all his bridges with Childress, and that the likelihood of him leaving was “close to 100%.”

While Harvick and Childress both denied that things ever got to that point and had been speaking all along about remaining together, a funny thing happened: they won a race, Harvick barely nipping 2010 upstart Jamie McMurray to the line at Talladega for his first points-paying win in over three years. A week later, Harvick and the No. 29 team assumed the points lead, setting the stage for an almost certain long-term reconciliation. Not surprisingly, three short weeks after that, Harvick signed a contract extension that will have him at the controls of the car that once was the famed No. 3 of Dale Earnhardt – and to this day still bears a tiny stylized No. 3 below the B-pillar – through the 2013 season.

A rising tide floats all ships, just as a win can cover a myriad of ills, frustrations, and hard feelings. Harvick was thrust into a most unenviable position as the heir to the throne that was left empty after the untimely death of Earnhardt on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. What Childress clearly didn’t forget is how his now-veteran driver handled the stress of that situation about as well as anyone could have imagined – and far exceeded everyone’s expectations.

In just his third start driving the eerily stark white No. 29 Goodwrench Chevrolet, Harvick won in a photo finish over Jeff Gordon in Atlanta, helping to heal the hearts of a family, team and racing organization, as well a legion of crestfallen fans around the world. The only current driver/owner combinations that have been together longer in NASCAR are Gordon with Hendrick Motorsports, Matt Kenseth with Roush Fenway Racing and Greg Biffle, also with Roush – albeit combined with both Truck and Nationwide stints before moving up to Cup full-time in 2003.

So following Harvick’s second 2010 triumph at Michigan International Speedway last Sunday, the stage was set for the announcement that had been widely expected for the last month or so. It actually happened to be Harvick’s second consecutive win in the Bud Shootout this February that helped spur interest in him as a potential new spokesman for Budweiser, which was under new leadership that was on hand in the winner’s circle. The principles were impressed with his performance in victory lane and appreciated his recognition of their product with a Bud in hand after he had emptied his familiar 20 ounces of Coke Classic.

“Budweiser’s involvement in NASCAR dates back more than three decades, and we’re excited to have as successful a driver as Kevin Harvick to usher in a new era for Budweiser,” said Mark Wright, Vice President of Media, Sports and Entertainment Marketing for Anheuser-Busch, at Tuesday’s announcement.

Harvick joins a storied list of drivers to adorn the crimson colors of The King of Beers. Darrell Waltrip is probably best remembered driving his red and white Budweiser Monte Carlo for Junior Johnson, winning his third Cup title in 1985 at the wheel of his No. 11 Chevrolet. Waltrip was joined by Neil Bonnett, who teamed with DW within Johnson’s organization driving the No. 12 Bud car. Terry Labonte and Geoff Bodine took turns driving Johnson’s No. 11 Fords, while Awesome Bill from Dawsonville traded in his Coors colors in 1992, coming within some measly bonus points of winning the championship.

Ken Schrader, Ricky Craven and Wally Dallenbach also spent significant seat time in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 25 and 50 machines – albeit in winless campaigns. Most recently, there was Kahne, who never really resonated with fans following Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s stint with the brand from 2000-2007; in fact, the mention of Junior’s name still conjures up images of his familiar red No. 8 machine leading the field through the tri-oval at Talladega.

But with a seemingly reborn Harvick and Richard Childress Racing, the notion of winning races and Sprint Cup championships is no longer a pipe dream or the result of imbibing one too many Budweisers. Earning the commitment and funding of an iconic brand and presence in the sport like Budweiser, Harvick and Childress can share a cold one after having spent the better part of a decade mending fences, building bridges and rebuilding an organization that many believed would never be the same.

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