Time wasn’t running out for NASCAR’s Kevin Harvick, but some began to wonder.
Had he missed his best opportunities to ever be a Sprint Cup champion? Harvick finished third in the Chase for the Sprint Cup three times in a four-year span during 2010-13. Harvick, the 2007 Daytona 500 champion, appeared destined to be known as the best driver of his era not to have won a championship.
That all changed in 2014. Harvick had divested himself of the energy-sapping responsibility of owning NASCAR Camping World Truck Series teams, even though his organization won championships in 2007, 2009 and 2011. He and his wife, DeLana, became parents of son Keelan, and parenthood provided Harvick with some equanimity on the home front.
Most of all, Harvick left Richard Childress Racing after 14 years and jumped to upstart Stewart-Haas Racing. That decision was career-altering.
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Harvick, in the No. 4 Chevrolet, blazed to the Sprint Cup championship last year. He won five races, including must-wins in the final two events at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami, and became the 30th champion in the series’ 66-year history.
The wait was worth it.
“When you look at the list of guys who have won a championship, it’s pretty small,” Harvick said. “I think it was better that I won a championship a little bit later in my career, because I respect it a lot more and understand how hard it is to get to this point and really know the work and effort and how many people it takes to be a part of it.”
Harvick, who turned 39 in December, became the oldest driver to win his first Cup championship since Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett was 43 when he won the 1999 Cup.
Jarrett’s path to the championship was similar. Jarrett, too, knew plenty of frustration, finishing third in 1996, second in 1997 and third in 1998. He, too, had changed teams, moving from the Robert Yates Racing No. 28 team to the No. 88.
And then it clicked.
“The biggest thing is we’re just competitors,” said Jarrett, now an analyst for NBC. “That’s what we do. There is so much that goes into experience and using that experience in this sport. Other sports don’t have nearly as big a window and time frame to make all of that happen and put that experience to use.”
It didn’t help that Harvick’s prime coincided with Jimmie Johnson’s dominating the sport and winning six championships during 2006-13.
“When you look at the majority of years Kevin has been chasing it, it has been in the Chase era,” said three-time champion Darrell Waltrip, now an analyst for Fox. “The Chase era changed the ways championships have been won. He had been at RCR his entire career … the big philosophy of Richard Childress Racing was try to win races, but let’s make sure we’re good and consistent. Well, unfortunately, consistency wasn’t the whole answer, especially once we got into the Chase format.
“Until this past year, if you had one bad run in the Chase, it pretty much eliminated you. Last year, we saw Kevin winning races and leading laps and doing all the right things, and it came down to the fact it wasn’t about consistency, it was about winning the right races in the Chase, and that’s what he did at Phoenix and at Homestead.”
It might be that Kevin Harvick wasn’t quite ready for Sprint Cup racing when Sprint Cup racing called.
Harvick was a rising 25-year-old driver in his second season in the Nationwide Series for Richard Childress Racing when Dale Earnhardt was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Childress tapped Harvick to replace the legendary Intimidator for the rest of the season in the Goodwrench Chevrolet, though he would be given the No. 29, not the hallowed No. 3.
Harvick won his third Sprint Cup start in the No. 29 at Atlanta and won again at Chicago. Harvick also maintained his Nationwide schedule and won five races and the series championship.
“I always tell people my Cup career really started backward,” Harvick said. “It’s like you started with everything that happened to Dale, and you go through all those scenarios, and you have crazy amounts of fans and attention and all the things that came with that situation.
“So it’s taken a long time to navigate through exactly what was a good mix and balance for us, and a lot of experience and a lot of situations to build off through the years.”
Harvick won Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors in 2001 by finishing ninth in the points standings, which complemented his Nationwide championship.
“I admire Kevin Harvick so much for the situation he was thrust into,” Jarrett said. “We talk about Dale Jr. and the effect that had on him, losing his dad … and it’s rarely mentioned about Kevin being put in that situation. I don’t think any of us can really understand what it was like to be thrust into Dale Earnhardt’s car. Kevin was trying to replace a legend that you can’t replace.
“Certainly, he had his trials and tribulations.”
Harvick was placed on probation for an incident in a truck series race in 2002 and barred from competing in a Cup race that season. He won a career-most five races in 2006 but finished a distant fourth to Johnson in the Chase.
It became apparent, however, that the Childress cars could not keep up with the Hendrick Motorsports or Penske Racing cars, and Childress was also grooming his grandsons, Austin Dillon and Ty Dillon, to eventually be his Cup drivers. So late in the 2012 season, Harvick made the decision to join Stewart-Haas, even if it meant a lame-duck season with Childress in 2013.
“Yeah, we had made some pretty bold decisions back in 2012 that led up to everything that happened last year,” Harvick said. “The end of 2012 and 2013 were tough transitions and tough times to get through. But in the end, the ultimate payoff was seeing it all come together and winning that championship.”
Though just in its fourth season, Stewart-Haas provided Harvick all the tools necessary to compete for the Chase. Harvick clinched a spot in the Chase by winning in week two in Phoenix, and he spent the rest of the season priming for the postseason.
“You make a change and people wonder, ‘Why are you doing this …? You had what looked like what was a comfortable situation at RCR,’ ” Jarrett said. “He was the leader of that organization, but you’re always thinking, ‘What is going to get me to that next level?’
“I don’t think in his mind, if he was being honest, he could go there and win a championship. But everything lined up. He had the perfect crew chief in Rodney Childers, had fast race cars and really showed the talent Kevin Harvick has.”
Harvick is soaking up his status as Sprint Cup champion. He seems more at ease at the track, mainly because the pressure of wanting to win a title has been lifted.
“There’s way less pressure,” said Harvick, who qualified 11th for today’s Daytona 500. “Coming into this situation last year, I was pretty nervous. It may not have shown through, but there’s just so many questions in your head that (it’s not) a very comfortable situation.
“But I didn’t want to be comfortable. I wanted to experience what we experienced last year, and sometimes you have to make some bold or hard decisions in order to make things like this happen.”
Now, the competitor in Harvick isn’t satisfied with just one championship, though he realizes it won’t be easy to repeat.
“You don’t have those expectations to live up to anymore,” he said. “You lived up to them. You know how to do that. It’s definitely hard to win it, just because you have to have all 10 weeks (of the Chase) line up, but I don’t necessarily know that it’s any different than it was before, other than the Homestead element really being the one race where you have to make it happen.
“We know we can drive in those situations and be successful. We know we can win races, if we put all the pieces together correctly, and we have done all that. … It obviously took me 14 years.”
Kevin Harvick, at 38 years old, became the oldest driver to win his first Sprint Cup championship last year since Dale Jarrett won the 1999 title at 43. Here are the ages of first-time champions since 1999.