Kevin Harvick won last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, scoring his second straight victory of the 2018 season. He won in dominant fashion, leading 214 of 267 laps. Nobody was off to a better start than Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing crew, and the team was heading to ISM Raceway, where Harvick had won eight times before. Suffice it to say, “Happy” Harvick could not have been happier.
But by Wednesday evening, Harvick was not so happy. NASCAR hit the No. 4 team with an L1 level penalty after tearing down the car at the R&D center. The most controversial violation was that a rear window support had failed, causing the No. 4 car’s rear window to bend during the race, a phenomenon that came to light after photos of the skewed window circulated on social media. As a result, car chief Robert “Cheddar” Smith received a two-race suspension, crew chief Rodney Childers had to pay a $50,000 fine and Harvick lost 20 points. Perhaps more importantly, Harvick had to forfeit the seven playoff points that he would have carried through the postseason as a result of winning the race and the two stages.
We will probably never know how much of a difference Harvick’s partially-collapsed rear window made at Las Vegas. It is not unusual for NASCAR to penalize a team for being out of compliance after a part fails, and having steel side skirts, rather than the NASCAR-mandated aluminum, only augmented the penalty. That said, he was so dominant in Las Vegas that he probably would have won regardless of failed window braces or side skirts.
It became the mission of the No. 4 team to remove as much doubt as possible about the Las Vegas victory by thoroughly crushing the field for the third time in 2018. Harvick may not have beaten the competition into submission at ISM; he led only 38 of the 312 laps. Yet, he was fast when it counted, and he earned his third victory in a row and ninth overall at the one-mile track in Phoenix.
So, was Harvick happy in Victory Lane?
“I’ve been pissed,” Harvick said. “I’ve been mad as all get out because this team does a great job. This organization does a great job, and we’ve got fast race cars. And to take that away from those guys just really pissed me off last week.
“Everybody was just determined this week and we just wanted to just go stomp ‘em. We didn’t stomp ‘em, but we won.”
It turned out that an angry Harvick was a good Harvick in Phoenix, and that is quite a departure from how he operated early in his career. Back in the early 2000s, Harvick faced the impossible task of trying to fill Dale Earnhardt’s shoes, all while attempting to establish himself in NASCAR’s top ranks. By circumstance, attitude or perhaps a combination of both, Harvick burst on to the scene as one of the most combative newcomers in the sport.
Within his first five seasons, his most explosive feuds were with Greg Biffle in an XFINITY Series race at Bristol in 2002, with Ricky Rudd at Richmond in 2003 and with Joe Nemechek during the All-Star Race in 2005. He also got held out of a 2002 race at Martinsville Speedway after spinning Coy Gibbs in a Truck Series race the day before. Harvick’s hot temper made him a polarizing figure in those days, but on more than one occasion, it felt like he let his anger get the best of him. It seemed like Harvick’s top priority was to always have some kind of defense ready, be it bumpers or words, for anyone who crossed him. The problem was that his tendency to strike back made life in NASCAR more difficult for him, with getting parked at Martinsville being the best example.
Harvick never totally lost his hot-headedness, but his relationship with the sport has changed in the last dozen years. He ran a highly-successful Truck Series team for a number of seasons. He broke a three-year winless streak in 2010 and came out a stronger driver than he had ever been before. Most importantly, Harvick did not stay trapped in Earnhardt’s shadow. He made a move to SHR and won a championship in his first year there. No driver could succeed in the way that he has without a great deal of focus, focus that he did not have in his early years.
Getting angry is no longer the weakness for Harvick that it once was because the anger he felt in Phoenix this weekend was a different kind of frustration. He was not so concerned about defending his own honor, but he wanted to see his team be respected in the way that its performance demanded. Note how Harvick’s words in Victory Lane are about his team, the fast cars that the No. 4 crew has built, how the controversy of the penalty has affected “those guys.” Chances are, a younger Harvick would not have said “we” so much when asked to explain why he was angry.
Learning how to shoulder the responsibility of a team is a lesson that many drivers face in their careers, but it is one that Harvick has learned better than most. As he continues his role as one of the elder statesmen of NASCAR, the driver of the No. 4 Ford will have a few more moments of anger before his career is through. Yet this is a veteran who knows that the best way to deal with disappointment is to win like he did in Phoenix on Sunday.
When Happy gets angry, the competition should get worried.