How Kevin Harvick decided to extend career, step back from media roles

Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Before signing the extension that will keep him in the No. 4 Ford for two more years through the 2023 season, Kevin Harvick did due diligence on the deal.

And this wasn’t just about the particulars of his new contract at Stewart-Haas Racing (though he and his representation surely went through the details with a fine-tooth comb, too).

Harvick, who turned 44 in December, consulted with several professional athletes – ex-NASCAR drivers such as Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace but also Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi (who won three World Series as a New York Yankees catcher) – about how they weighed the merits of ending their careers.

“I asked a lot of questions about when those guys knew it was time and what did they feel like they could have done differently,” Harvick said Wednesday during Daytona 500 Media Day. “A lot of it pointed to why you would want to get out of a situation when you are competitive with a group of guys that you love to be around and are performing and racing for championships?”

The best pieces of advice he received?

“The thing that stuck out to me from Mark was to just remember when you walk out the last time, you will never get to see your number on that scoreboard again,” Harvick said. “From Girardi, it was, ‘Make sure they take the jersey off for you, don’t take it off yourself.’ ”

By racing into his late 40s, Harvick will be bucking the increasingly popular conventional wisdom that NASCAR drivers peak at age 39 and then begin a steady decline (a theory that has gained notable traction through the Motorsports Analytics website).

“The analytics go off of average drivers, right? I like to think of myself as above average,” Harvick said with a chuckle. “Most of the time.”

Jarrett retired from racing at 52, and the NASCAR on NBC analyst was fond of saying the car “doesn’t know how old I am” in the waning years of his career. Harvick ascribes to the same philosophy.

“A lot of times people forget that this isn’t baseball, football or basketball,” he said. “Experience in this game matters a lot more than being able to run fast or jump high. Our bodies don’t matter as much as they do in other sports.

“Most of those (NASCAR drivers) were in their 50s when they quit. It is easier now than what it was then. That was one thing that Dale and Rusty brought up. What difference does it make? As long as you are physically able to do the things at a high level, there is really no reason to just up and quit unless you have some things that are happening at home that you want to do different. As long as that circle of life is balanced, our sport is not like other sports as far as your body is concerned.”

Harvick said he also was cautioned by Jarrett (who had a rough final season and a half at Michael Waltrip Racing) that “if you are with a good team, and you have worked your whole career for it, don’t walk away from it and turn your back on it.”

Harvick won his first championship when he joined Stewart-Haas and crew chief Rodney Childers in 2014, and the extension ensures he will be the team’s anchor driver for at least 10 consecutive seasons. He will spend the next three years spearheading SHR’s development of the NextGen car (which will make its debut in 2021), another sign of being its undisputed leader.

“The things that mean the most to me are keeping my team happy,” said Harvick, who has 26 Cup wins at SHR and has reached the championship round in five of the past six seasons. “I am fortunate that they keep me in the loop as far as opinions and where things are at. I am lucky because that is kind of what (co-owners) Tony (Stewart) and Gene (Haas) wanted as they hired me was to be a part of that stuff and be involved. I enjoy that part of it. I also enjoy the part that I don’t have to pay for it.”

In signing a new contract near the end of last year, Harvick also decided to step out of his commitments to Fox Sports (as an analyst the past few seasons) and SiriusXM’s NASCAR channel (as the host of the popular “Happy Hours” program since 2017).

His appearances on TV and radio were well-received and pointed toward a promising future, which prompted surprise about the extension because it seemed he could have been readying for a media career after next year.

“I don’t know if that is a fair assumption,” he said. “For me, being in the car was always on the table. I think for me it was really testing the waters to kind of see what that was all about. I am in a unique spot to be fortunate enough to be able to experience that and still drive the car.”

Eliminating the radio show returned Wednesday afternoons to Harvick, who has spoken about the importance of chauffeuring his 7-year-old, Keelan, and 2-year-old daughter, Piper, to school and activities like any parent.

With both kids now traveling on race weekends, being an Xfinity race analyst on a Saturday afternoon was less appealing to Harvick.

“With my family coming to the racetrack more now that Piper is older, it is almost like you are on vacation,” Harvick said. “The way the race schedule is on Saturdays, most of these tracks, you run one qualifying lap and have the rest of the day to figure out something to do. Those were some of the compromises that had to come with staying in the car in order to keep the family life balanced and be able to spend enough time with them.

“I enjoy doing TV. I enjoy doing radio. That is all stuff that down the road I still want to do, there are just compromises in every situation and the decision that I made had to come with compromises that lead to more time.”