HAMPTON, Georgia – Imitator of “The Intimidator?”
No, and that was always the blessing, curse and confounding part of following in the footsteps of a true icon. Kevin Harvick was unfairly thrust by some into the role of unwitting savior after winning in only his third start in NASCAR’s premier series.
When he held three fingers out the window for the second time on an Atlanta Motor Speedway victory lap Sunday, Harvick was saluting the memory of Dale Earnhardt — but he also was celebrating the peace of being a middle-aged champion who took a long, arduous path to a surprising state of grace and zen nearly 17 years after the overwhelming circumstances of his first Cup victory.
No one could ever be “The Man” in NASCAR that Earnhardt was, but Atlanta reminded us in many ways how Harvick has become a man in full.
“I’ve been waiting a long time, because 2001 was very confusing,” Harvick, 42, said of winning in the ride he inherited three races after the seven-time champion died on the last lap of the Daytona 500. “It was my first win and don’t feel like I remember really anything about it because it was just such a really confusing time in my life. Just on the racetrack and with Dale gone and getting in his car.
“It was fun to actually pay tribute and smile about what was going on and not know if you should actually stick your hand out the window — if somebody was going to be offended or mad and whether it was the right thing to do or wrong thing to do and it was your first win. So there was just a lot of confusing things. So it felt good to pay tribute to that and park it in victory lane with a smile on my face and watch everybody smile with me.”
A communal theme was revisited often by the Stewart-Haas Racing driver during his nonstop reflection after the win, and it wasn’t by accident.
The guy who always proclaims to love challenges (because wisps of boredom have tended to be self-destructive to his career) now seems to be undertaking his biggest yet. Bigger than starting his own truck and Xfinity teams, or running for two national titles concurrently while racing 70-plus times in a season.
This challenge is a variation of what he faced when he scored a hugely sentimental and therapeutic win in the aftermath of NASCAR reeling from one of its biggest voids in history.
Just as when Earnhardt’s sudden exit left many pondering who could wear his unfillable shoes, so has the disappearing axis of Jeff Gordon–Tony Stewart–Dale Earnhardt Jr. left open questions about the lack of gravitational guidance for the next generation of stars.
The March 2001 version of Harvick, a 25-year-old only a few years removed from racing Late Models, wasn’t cut out for any such leadership roles, and the reasons went beyond age or a dearth of worldliness.
The Bakersfield, California, native always possessed a devious love of controversy that precluded much poise. “Harvick-ing” might have blossomed with his shove of Brad Keselowski into the fray with Jeff Gordon at Texas in November 2014, but its roots run much, much deeper. Harvick routinely butted heads with all comers and with an indifference that underscored he worried about himself and little else.
The perspective started to change when he became a team owner in the mid-2000s, a father in 2012 and then a series champion (with its inherent ambassadorial responsibilities) in 2014.
Last year, Harvick took on a SiriusXM Satellite Radio show (“Happy Hours”) with co-host Matt Yocum because he admittedly needed help connecting with fans. It succeeded in bridging that chasm but more importantly, it also seems to have given Harvick a better appreciation that a place in NASCAR existed as an elder statesman if he wanted it.
“I think I totally underestimated the power of the radio show,” he said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast last year. “Having an opinion about things happening in the sport is something fans really enjoy. I think people who listen to the radio show realize how much I think about things and how much we push to make things change.”
While some of his viewpoints remain controversial, Harvick has made the radio show a weekly must-listen because he has something interesting to say and usually with a nod to the big picture. It hints at the TV career awaiting in the next phase of his life, and it’s brought a new polish to the star high school wrestler who once seemed to prefer making points through physical will instead of eloquent words.
The Harvick of only a few years ago wouldn’t have joked as he did Sunday about learning the correct messaging of “playoffs” and “optical scanning station” to keep in line with his SiriusXM producers.
But it’s obviously about more than just the media formalities.
“For me right now, the sport is what enthuses me and kind of is very intriguing to me because there’s a lot of things that need some help and guidance with so many of the young guys coming up through the ranks, and there’s so much to learn,” he said. “But we have to teach them about it. Jimmie Johnson and myself have talked about it. Somebody has to explain to them how things work and show them the ropes. And that to me is fun. You want to go beat them on the racetrack still. It’s not anything about that.
“But we need to get back to where everybody can go drink a beer together and have a good time, and I walk in the garage and we try to do as many things as we can for the officials and people and NASCAR just because … it just feels like everybody has kind of forgotten exactly how much fun this is and how lucky we are to walk into this garage on a weekly basis or to sit in that car on a weekly basis and drive race cars around in circles.”
Many of the people who taught Harvick that are gone or on their way out. Sunday, he fondly recalled sitting in smoke-filled rooms and absorbing the admonitions and wisdom of longtime NASCAR executive Jim Hunter, who died in 2010. Former president Mike Helton, who delivered Harvick some sternly and succinctly worded lectures, has deservedly scaled back office hours in the garage now that he is in his mid-60s.
Can Harvick, who never had a chance (nor did anyone) laying claim to Earnhardt’s immense sway, be the “devil may care” rebel-turned-soothsayer who takes their place as a mentor? He seems to think so.
“I’ve just got a much better appreciation of how cool it is to sit in that race car and really enjoy the things that I do,” he said. “I want to spread that to the rest of them because it’s not all sponsors and politics and business and all the things that you think it all is right now. It’s fun.
“Everything we did to get to this point is fun, and I want to make sure that everybody hears me talk about how fun this is and realize, and maybe you spark some interest in somebody in the garage or working on the car or driving a car that we’re lucky to do what we do, so you’d better enjoy it, because it might not be here tomorrow.”
That’s a lesson NASCAR learned the hard way with Earnhardt.
It’s impressive to hear his unlikely successor articulate it so well.
The inevitable repaving of Atlanta assuredly will make drivers angry whenever it happens, so why not go a step further and get creative if the new surface is guaranteed to be poorly received?
Instead of repaving, what about reconfiguring (as Dale Earnhardt Jr. hinted at on Twitter, returning the original layout could be an option)?
And if that’s open for discussion, how about getting really radical and consider transforming the track into a new layout that isn’t the 1.54-mile length?
Granted, it’s easy to spend Bruton Smith’s money and dream about adding a fourth short track to the schedule. This isn’t necessarily realistic. But it at least is worthy of discussion.
While its abrasive asphalt makes for intriguing strategies and puts a premium on driver talent with tire management, it hasn’t delivered much for side-by-side entertainment.
The last three truly memorable finishes at this track were Carl Edwards slamming by Jimmie Johnson in 2005, Harvick nipping Jeff Gordon in 2001 and Earnhardt beating Bobby Labonte in 2000. As longtime scribe Monte Dutton noted, Sunday’s 500 miles were interesting but weren’t particularly exciting.
Yes, drivers are going to howl whenever Atlanta is redone, and it’s partly because it could take years before its current dynamics can be replicated (if at all).
With that in mind, how about taking an opportunity to truly start from scratch?
Excepting the criticisms of Cole Pearn and Martin Truex Jr. (whose brutal and honest candor should be praised and also was understandable given the circumstances), there weren’t many complaints about the new pit guns despite multiple problems Sunday.
There also was a notable absence of vociferous disapproval during Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, where there also were reports of some kinks with the Paoli-manufactured equipment whose use is mandated by NASCAR this season.
Because the Team Owner Council apparently worked closely with NASCAR in helping formulate the new policies, it would make sense if the word has been put out to quell disparaging comments in the early going.
But mouths won’t stay shut for long if the problems persist, especially (which Truex explained so pointedly) as the stakes rise during the season.
If Hendrick Motorsports continues to struggle at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, don’t expect the team to hit the panic button. The schedule puts limitations on what could be applied from its woes last weekend at Atlanta. With the next three stops at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana, California, it will be difficult to implement major changes on the fly.
Before the race, Chase Elliott said it probably would be until late March before Hendrick can adequately assess the impact of an offseason restructuring of its competition department.
“The thing about the West Coast swing is a lot of those cars are already prepared to go west,” Elliott said. “So, things that we may learn this weekend might not have the ability to be applied to the race car that we’re racing next weekend because that car is pretty much done. So I think once you get back from (the West Coast) and kind of evaluate where you are, hopefully you can put some of the things you’ve learned toward those weeks, but if it’s bigger changes and things that you need days in the shop to do, you’re not going to be able to make those changes until you get back.”
The new kids on the block never had a chance at Atlanta, which hugely favors experience over tire management. This was perhaps best exemplified by rookie William Byron, who fell a lap down before the first caution on Lap 30 (Harvick gave him the lap back just before the yellow). After getting acclimated, Byron still finished 18th.
This weekend at Las Vegas, where Byron was among the fastest in testing a few weeks ago, will be a much better indicator of how the youth in Cup will stack up this season. As third-place finisher Clint Bowyer said, it’s a track where “it’s qualifying laps every single lap, and those kids will show back up.”
At tracks where the balance shifts to rewarding the trust of blind bravery over track knowledge, it could be a repeat of 2002 when Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman regularly outran veterans who said it was because the rookies didn’t know any better.
Fords dominated and swept the top three spots Sunday, but Atlanta isn’t grouped as much as it should be in the category of early season fool’s gold the way Daytona is. Yes, it marked the start of the unrestricted “real” season, but its unique surface makes the track an unreliable indicator of what’s to come.
Fords also led 313 of 325 laps in the 2017 race at Atlanta. And it took 32 races before a Fusion was in victory lane again on a 1.5-mile track (Harvick at Texas last November).
If the new policy had the game-changing impact that some predicted in the preseason, Atlanta would have marked the first instance in which drivers truly could benefit from NASCAR freely releasing more EFI data to teams.
But though some big-name drivers remain steadfastly opposed to the concept, there were signs that maybe it won’t make the difference that had been feared.
“I don’t think it’s really a good idea to be letting all of the other teams see driver’s data from different teams,” Truex said. “I certainly don’t want other teams looking at what I am doing. I’ve worked for 13 years to work on my style and feel like the way I drive the car and the data that is produced by that is mine. It’s not for everyone to see. … We’ll just have to see what comes out of this and what it looks like.
“At this point in time, it’s pretty much useless to look at from a standpoint that it’s just not that accurate. So I am hoping it stays that way and we’ve talked to NASCAR and do as we much as we can to help them understand. And that’s because I don’t think we want everybody in the garage driving exactly the same way.”
Said Keselowski before Friday’s practice: “I don’t know the quality that we’re going to receive from that. There’s a really, really technical, complicated discussion that goes with it. In theory, I’m against it. In practice perhaps different, and I haven’t seen it in practice, so I kind of want to see it in practice.
“My intuition says that in theory it will work, in practice it won’t, so I really would like to get through a couple weekends of seeing it because at this point in time, the little bit of access that I’ve had to it, which has been minimal at best, says that it’s probably not going to work in practice and we won’t have to worry about it. It’s kind of a non-story, but I could be completely wrong, so I want to see it in a working environment rather than an engineering lab.”