Kevin Harvick is an old-school traditionalist. To him, routine and status quo are as comfortable as an old shoe. What he doesn’t like is change.
To deviate from a comfort level and deal with the uncertainty and consequences that potentially come with change are not among Harvick’s favorite things in the world.
That’s why it took him not weeks nor months, but years to ultimately make what was arguably the most difficult decision of his career: to leave Richard Childress Racing after 13 seasons and move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
At least twice during his 13-year tenure with RCR, Harvick considered moving to another team, but his loyalty to team owner Richard Childress eventually trumped any desire to leave. But by the middle of the 2013 season, Harvick was finally convinced by one of his best friends, Tony Stewart, that a new start at SHR would be the best thing for Harvick and his NASCAR career.
Boy, was it ever. In his first season with SHR, Harvick finally accomplished what he wasn’t able to at RCR: win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in perhaps the most dramatic finish and flourish ever seen in NASCAR history.
By doing so, he took his place among an illustrious list of the sport’s champions, including NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Ned and Dale Jarrett, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough – as well as likely future Hall members such as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Stewart.
“It’s an incredible feeling of accomplishment,” Harvick said. “I dreamed about being a race car driver and winning [the NASCAR Sprint Cup] championship. Being able to fulfill your lifelong dream, the reality is that’s something that a lot of people can’t really say they’ve ever done.”
Harvick is also quick to acknowledge that 2014 would not have played out the way it did had he not embraced that it truly was a time for change.
“I have to admit, I was scared to death,” Harvick said. “I tried to play it cool, but it was a pivotal moment in my career. I was venturing outside my comfort zone and I had to make it work.
Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, also had to make his own leap of faith, leaving a secure job at Michael Waltrip Racing to be part of essentially a start-up team at SHR.
“It was a big decision,” Childers said. “It was hard. But once that decision was done, it was done. I never thought for one second that it wasn’t going to work. From the time [Harvick] and I looked at each other and said we’re going to do this, it was over.”
Those who doubted Harvick and Childers would accomplish much in their first season together only served to be another motivating force.
“The worst thing you can ever do is tell somebody they’re not going to go win a championship somewhere, because they’ll do it,” Childers said prophetically.
If Harvick had known what he would accomplish in 2014, one has to wonder what he may have achieved in his career if he had parted ways with RCR after the 2007 or 2010 seasons, when he previously considered leaving. But loyalty, perseverance and the belief that he would ultimately give RCR its first NASCAR Sprint Cup crown since 1994 kept Harvick in place.
Eventually, though, Harvick decided that to have a chance at the elusive NASCAR Sprint Cup title, he would have to leave RCR.
“I just wasn’t excited about going to work,” Harvick said of his final years at RCR. “I needed to be excited about going to work and this just gave me an opportunity to race with one of my good friends [Tony Stewart].
“[My wife] DeLana and I looked at things and said, ‘What’s going to make us happy?’” Harvick continued. “Because in the end if you’re not happy, nothing is going to work like it should.”
And now? He really is living up to his nickname of “Happy Harvick.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my whole life than I have been, from a personal standpoint, from a professional standpoint,” Harvick said. “You see all the things that you have around you, and you’re lucky.
STEWART: HARVICK EMBRACED CHANGE
Can Kevin Harvick become only the fourth driver in the last 20 years to win back-to-back titles? Jimmie Johnson won five in a row from 2006-2010, Jeff Gordon won in 1996 and 1997 and Dale Earnhardt did so in 1993 and 1994. The man most responsible for getting Harvick to overcome his fear of change and lured him away to Stewart-Haas Racing thinks so.
“I think it’s just a good example that change isn’t always a bad thing, you know, and especially in this sport; it’s just a performance-based industry,” Tony Stewart said. “There’s crew guys moving all the time, there’s drivers making changes, crew chiefs making changes, but it boils down to people and it boils down to putting the right packages together.
“You know, it’s gratifying for me. I had two of my really good friends [Harvick and former teammate Ryan Newman] run first and second in the points [in 2014]. How they got there and who they got there with doesn’t matter, it’s the fact that they just got there.” And if fate plays out in 2015 as it did in 2014, they may both get there once again.
“I love showing up to work. I love coming to the race track and love what I do. It’s been a long, long time since I can honestly tell you that I love the experience of everything that’s been around me and it just makes it fun.”
There’s no question leaving RCR was emotionally difficult. Childress gave Harvick the biggest break of his career, choosing the Bakersfield, Calif., native to replace Dale Earnhardt after his tragic death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
When Harvick announced he would leave RCR at the end of the 2013 season, it was not an easy break-up at first. But as he accepted the NASCAR Sprint Cup trophy at the 2014 awards banquet, Harvick displayed great class by publicly thanking Childress for all the owner had done for his career.
“I owe a lot to Richard Childress,” Harvick said. “He believed in a punk kid from California enough to give me a ride. And then he had the faith to bring me to [the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series] during an incredibly emotional time for him, RCR and our sport. We did a lot together and I’m not up here [as a champion] without you, Richard. Thank you.”
Yes, change may be difficult, but in the end – as in Harvick’s case – it proved to be the right thing. Sometimes, the grass truly is greener on the other side of the hill.