It seems completely consistent with what’s become a growing trend, the antithesis of another that Kevin Harvick himself kicked into overdrive back in 2006. Back then, Harvick became the first full-time Cup driver to successfully retreat into double-dipping, running full NNS and Cup schedules en route to a dominating Nationwide Series championship campaign that saw Happy win nine races and clinch the series title a month early in Charlotte. It was the second time Harvick had pulled it off, doing the same in the wake of Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s death that forced him into the Cup level back in 2001. The difference this time? A half-dozen drivers, at the peak of “Buschwhacking” competed with dual schedules along with him.
Five years later, though, the trend is for Cup’s big guns to do just the opposite. With Jimmie Johnson proving completely unflappable at the front of the Cup field, Kyle Busch gave up double duty after his 2009 championship run in the Nationwide ranks. Next, it was Brad Keselowski who scaled back this season after winning the NNS title a year ago. Even Carl Edwards, running both series full-time since 2005 has finally given up the ghost, announcing that even he would scale back extracurricular racing activities in 2012. It’s not even the racing these guys are doing that’s being scaled back, either… Kyle Busch’s Truck Series team lasted but a few months as a two-truck operation before Busch realized he was in over his head and scaled down.
A lot of this contraction revolves around “following the leader;” or, in this case, trying to Chase him down. There’s been a number of constants in Jimmie Johnson’s unprecedented reign as king of stock car racing…and a big one of those has been that Jimmie’s sole focus is and has been the No. 48 car and the No. 48 car alone since he took the ride over in 2002. Monkey see, monkey do?
Considering that fact, the explanation given Friday morning that KHI would no longer be fielding trucks or Nationwide cars after the close of this season to allow Harvick to focus on Cup racing…and winning the big trophy that is the last remaining piece of a career that has already scored two Nationwide crowns and a Daytona 500 triumph…makes perfect sense.
Problem is, no matter the trend, it doesn’t add up in Harvick’s case.
Look at the guys that he’s supposedly joining as honing in on the Cup; Keselowski, Edwards, Busch. The only one of those guys at a comparable point in their career is Edwards, and Edwards’ racing activities outside of Cup follow a far different pattern than those of Harvick. Edwards has been racing Nationwide full-time his whole career because that’s all he’s known. Hell, after running only a third of a season in the No. 99 before getting the ride full-time in 2005, there was almost an argument to be made for the former Truck regular needing to run a full-time Nationwide car to get up to speed. Harvick, on the other hand, has been far more episodic. A part-time truck effort here and there in 2003. A return to full-time NNS competition and a championship run in 2006. And how ironic that Harvick was top 5 in points in both of those years.
Take a good, hard look at the stats, and Harvick’s best seasons in Cup have lined up with heavy involvement in racing outside of the No. 29 car. That’s a huge difference between Edwards, who has no idea how he’ll perform Cup with no NNS distractions because, well, he’s never tried it; Keselowski, who flat out sucked in Cup en route to winning that AAA title last season; and Busch, who has publicly admitted that his exploits in NNS and the trucks in 2009 played a significant role in keeping him out of the Chase that season.
But in Harvick’s case, sometimes busy does mean better. Look closer at Harvick’s worst seasons in Cup racing; 14th in 2004 and 2005, 19th in 2009. There’s a constant there that has nothing to do with Harvick, KHI, anything. It’s that when Harvick is down, all of RCR is down. 2004, Robby Gordon struggled in the No. 31, and the No. 30 fielded entries for everyone from Johnny Sauter to Jim Inglebright before Jeff Burton finally ended up behind the wheel. 2005, Burton was still aiding RCR in their rebuilding project while Dave Blaney limped home to a 26th-place finish in the points. 2009, a roster including Harvick, Burton, Clint Bowyer and Casey Mears combined to win zero races. When RCR slumps, Harvick slumps.
2011 has been no exception. Harvick is on pace to run fewer Truck and Nationwide races than he has since 2002, yet prior to a resurgent Richmond weekend Harvick has been all but off the radar in the Cup field. Just as Jeff Burton’s woeful campaign continued, while both Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer fumbled away any hopes they had of making the Chase, the No. 29 flared back up into contention. There’s certainly been a problem with RCR’s Cup program…but KHI doesn’t exactly fit into that equation.
Besides, it’s been very well-documented that Delana Harvick has been the muscle and brains behind the ever-growing day-to-day operations of KHI’s racing programs, even before Joey Logano’s infamous “firesuit” comments. ESPN ran a feature on Delana the business woman for crying out loud…a month ago. Strange given that Harvick referred to the timeframe of KHI’s shutdown having started much earlier this season in his Friday remarks.
And then there’s the 800-pound gorilla of a story that was running wild throughout the garage area this entire weekend at Richmond… that the ultimate dissolution of NASCAR’s premier Nationwide/Truck Series operation is coming as a result of problems within the Cup Series’ most iconic marriage. Frontstretch received reports from several independent sources over the course of the Richmond weekend that personal troubles between the Harvicks were at least in some way responsible for the announcement this weekend that a Truck Series operation that has won two championships and is contending for the owner’s title this year is now facing shutters.
To be fair, such a scenario was presented to Harvick during questioning on Friday and was adamantly denied. But again, look at the competition side of things; Harvick has for whatever reason done well throughout his career to correlate successful Cup campaigns with lots of extracurricular activity in racing. Look at the reality of how KHI operated as a business; Delana, not Kevin did the heavy lifting. Look at the fact that for all the claims of racing not making business sense, KHI had enough sponsors and employees to field five full-time teams and employ 140 people in the worst economic climate the sport has seen in recent memory.
And look at the drivers who will now face uncertain futures as a result of this move. Elliott Sadler, the Nationwide Series title contender that KHI rescued from a floundering Cup career. Cale Gale, one of the hardest working guys in the garage and a development prospect that KHI has stuck behind for years. And Ron Hornaday, a driver who not only owes his career resurgence to the company, but is a well-known friend of the Harvicks. Each of those three are known to be significant figures in the lives of both Kevin and Delana; and yet, they’re ultimately the ones on the chopping block because of Friday’s announcement. A decision like that doesn’t come around because it’s not worth it anymore. It comes around because drivers like that always make it worth it.
Whatever the reason, there’s no compelling evidence of any kind to suggest that KHI’s racing operations are on the way out because the business model was failing, or the driver was distracted from his day job, or that ownership was suddenly a less satisfying enterprise.
And that’s sad, because as long as the adamant denial continues, as long as the company line is “it’s just business” and “I want to focus on Cup,” the end of KHI is going to be synonymous with a great success story becoming the latest casualty of the Nationwide and Truck Series, a segment of racing that has in recent years destroyed such great stories as Lewis Motorsports, PPC Racing, Baker/Curb Racing, Mac Hill Motorsports, and more. The problem is, when comparing KHI to those other companies, the story is going to be “If Kevin Harvick, Delana, and 140 of racing’s brightest can’t make it work, who can?”
If even a smidgen of the rumors are true, that the personal life of one of stock car racing’s most recognizable couples is even remotely responsible for the end of KHI racing, then all this talk of focusing elsewhere and business sense is a cover for something else…
Well, it’d be safe to say that two individuals that have given so much to NASCAR’s lower-tier series may well have torn down far more than the race team they built up.
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