Kevin Harvick spent Saturday night “Happy” in Victory Lane, and why not? He’d won the first Cup race of 2013, established himself as a contender to win a second Daytona 500 and injected a much-needed boost of energy into struggling Richard Childress Racing. But the second he stepped out of that zone, into his media presser that merriness got entangled with a different type of off-track mission – one that involved holding up the middle finger.
“I missed all you guys,” said the winner, a sarcastic joke tinged with reality after walking in. “Because you were all busy being TMZ the other day. So now you all have to talk to me and I can be a complete prick.”
This statement, coming from a guy _who won._ Clearly, mixed with humor Harvick spoke for many in the garage who have been irked by the main story of Speedweeks being better suited for a Hallmark Valentine’s Day Card than the front page of the paper. News flash: Danica loves Ricky. Ricky loves Danica. It’s the sweetest romance people concerned about the racing could care less about. That meant even the future teammate of the woman of the hour was desperate to turn the talk towards some other storyline; in this case, the pending nine-month divorce decree with owner Richard Childress both sides are determined to overcome.
“The atmosphere is great, honestly,” he said about the “new” RCR. “Everybody is just working towards the same goal. That’s winning the races. We have to be professional anyway, whether it’s lame duck or not. You can call it whatever you want, we’re going to have a helluva lot of fun racing, having a good time, doing our jobs.”
He was loose, as was Childress and crew chief Gil Martin after leading 40 of 75 laps, staying cool as a cucumber down the stretch and blocking all challengers. It’s clear the public their M.O. is to ensure everything is all status quo; nothing to see here, people, even though the owner was as cantankerous as could be about the situation three months earlier in Phoenix.
It’s just that the storyline, however juicy when presented on a silver platter didn’t fool many; good thing it was wiped off the face of the earth in 24 hours anyway. Sorry, Kev; in this case, the win on Saturday night does as much to change peoples’ minds as his baby Keelan reaching for a different type of ketchup at the grocery store.
It’s no surprise RCR, a proven Daytona success story would be up front for not just the Sprint Unlimited but this year’s 500. Even much-maligned teammate Jeff Burton, who struggled mightily in the No. 31 last season went four-for-four on top-10 finishes in plate races, nearly pulling off a huge upset in last July’s Coke Zero 400. Add in Austin Dillon’s 500 debut, driving the No. 33 Chevy, fast times in testing and all the pieces have been put in place by engineering for an A+ weekend across the board. I wouldn’t say what Harvick accomplished on stage, Saturday night was expected, but it was far from surprising.
Looking ahead, it also does nothing to help what will be a dogfight quest to make NASCAR’s Holy Grail these days, the Chase. It scores no points, gives him no edge with the “wild card” or in the championship race no driver leaving for _another ride_ has ever been successful with in the modern era. And all the drafting expertise in the world doesn’t work when RCR heads to Las Vegas in March, step one in an intermediate tour that, in 2012 often left this Budweiser Chevy looking like the engineers had a few beers before constructing it. This win doesn’t cover up drama in June, when new sponsorships get announced at Stewart-Haas Racing which will likely be the same ones Harvick has now – bringing them over from RCR and perhaps threatening the very jobs of his current crew in 2014. Early chemistry doesn’t come up midsummer, during the first rough stretch of tough finishes every team goes through where the difference here becomes this team knows their marriage is over. So yeah, there’s a reason why the “lame duck overcomes all odds” story hasn’t been hatched yet. The rocky road is still dead ahead.
Talk to us in five months, Kevin.
For those who dislike Danica Patrick, it’s clear you won’t get the same kind of off-air reprieve. After making history Sunday, becoming the first woman to win a pole in a Sprint Cup race her short-term itinerary could include making more appearances than the President. At one point Sunday for me, Patrick’s post-pole interview on FOX turned into her popping up on ABC News when I went to the gym, then a stint on ESPNEWS the second I turned on my television at home. She dominated _SportsCenter,_ when I clicked to ESPN and then popped up on CNN. It was getting to the point where I thought _Family Guy_ would be interrupted with a breaking news update on her whereabouts with Ricky.
In all seriousness, let’s stand up and respect what Ms. Patrick has done. Little girls all over the country, some who have never heard of our sport before now have a record to seek. Chauvinism, NASCAR’s dark side that once included an accusation Shawna Robinson was intentionally spun out after winning a Nationwide Series pole (Atlanta, 1994) is getting put to bed. Everyone from Jimmie Johnson, to Jeff Gordon, to Tony Stewart has come together and is openly rooting for her success. To start off 2013 in this way, great publicity luring new fans in for the first race with a new brand of car equals an incredible opportunity for NASCAR to regroup. (Bonus: Patrick is acing her interviews. Every. Single. One… it’s uncanny. She’s got us all wrapped around that finger of sudden success.)
But optimism must also be based in reality. As Michael Waltrip so eloquently said, “She deserves some credit… but the car deserves more.” Stewart-Haas Racing, with teammates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman landed three cars inside the top 5. Clearly, the engineers figured something out in the offseason, a combination of aerodynamics and Hendrick horsepower that left Patrick with the best possible equipment to succeed. Yes, you have to put together the perfect lap, even on a track where you never press the brake. But with plate racing, when running by yourself the best drivers will whisper even a trained monkey can run wide open. SHR also isn’t stupid, with twenty races in need of a primary sponsor spread among Stewart, Newman, and Patrick’s cars. No question, internally the best car in qualifying was going to go to the one capable of making the biggest media impact.
It’s also important to note this type of surprise run, by a rookie pole sitter isn’t unprecedented. In 1994, Loy Allen, Jr. came to the speedway with a subpar team (TriStar Motorsports) whose current car, driven by Mike Bliss didn’t even make the top 40 on speed in 2013. Back then, it was a different story, despite a resume from TriStar’s former rookie that included a best finish of 26th (twice) in just five starts, three DNQs and a whole lot of unfulfilled potential. (Sound familiar?)
How did this historical lesson compare? Well, Allen was a ho-hum 22nd in the 500, then crashed out the next week at Rockingham before failing to qualify at Richmond. That year, he missed 12 of 31 races, never scored a top-10 finish (despite two more poles) and was a general non-factor in the Rookie of the Year competition.
Patrick feels like her outcome will be different. The crew chief (Tony Gibson) has formed an instant bond with her and is proven. And while Allen was part of a single-car outfit, she’s getting directly assisted by a three-time champion in Stewart, along with the support of mammoth SHR “sidekick” Hendrick Motorsports. Her best finish, a 17th was accomplished just this past November at Phoenix and Daytona has been a good track for her at times — she nearly won a Nationwide race here a few years back.
Still, the odds are long she’ll be even moderately successful on Sunday — and she knows it. But that’s OK with her.
“I feel like thriving in those moments where the pressure’s on has also been a help for me,” she added Sunday. “I also feel like I’ve been lucky in my career to be with good teams and have good people around me. I don’t think any of it would have been possible without that.”
It’s clear, after this weekend that Patrick certainly has quality people around her, just like Harvick has the potential to overcome the odds. Both are off to the best starts possible.
Just don’t get caught up in thinking they’ve finished the job. That’s what the coming days and months are for; but at least, in the process they’ve gotten more eyes ready to watch.
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