In The Pits: Harvick not so happy anymore
Published 8:33 am Wednesday, July 22, 2009
By By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE – They called him Happy Harvick at the start of his NASCAR career, when success came so easy that Kevin Harvick had a seemingly perpetual smile.
Its been quite some time since the nickname fit.
Harvicks been rather unhappy of late and struggling through the worst slump of his career‚ a winless streak that dates back 90 points races, to the 2007 season-opening Daytona 500. Its so bad that his name has been thrown into the rumor mill, with mounting speculation that hes trying to weasel his way out of Richard Childress Racing.
Hes under contract to Childress through next season, as is sponsor Shell-Pennzoil, and the team owner felt the need last week to stress that both will be back with the No. 29 Chevrolet in 2010. Like the dreaded vote of confidence that generally precedes a firing, Childress sharply worded statement could very well mean Harvick is on the move.
Harvick is saying very little publicly, which only feeds the rumors. Hes smart, calculating and sometimes manipulative, and over the course of his career, hes never held back when voicing his displeasure on a variety of topics.
Because nothing sets him off quite like poor performance, the whole world has been waiting for him to explode as hes drifted out of contention for the Chase for the championship. Instead, hes said next to nothing, even biting his tongue when his Kevin Harvick Inc. team accidentally ran him out of gas during Saturday nights Nationwide Series race in St. Louis. It relegated a potentially race-winning car‚ he led 105 of the 200 laps‚ to a 17th-place finish.
Harvick of old would have publicly blasted his team, and maybe even fired an employee or two. And on the Cup side, where hes 25th in points and has led just nine laps all year, hed be screaming bloody murder about the pathetic RCR performance this season.
He admitted last month at Sonoma that this has been his worst year that Ive ever had racing, period, but declined to speculate on how to fix it. He told The Associated Press any problems are companywide at RCR‚ and hes right, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton are both off a tick this season, while Casey Mears has sputtered in his first year with the team‚ but directed any performance issues to Childress.
Its not my job to figure out what is wrong. You give all the input that you can back, and then its out of my department, Harvick told AP. Ask Richard whats wrong. Hes the only one who can answer this.
Childress is the first to admit his team is struggling, and in April he fell back on one of his standard quick-fix ideas, swapping the entire crews of Harvick and Mears. It had worked for Childress two previous times before, when he successfully swapped crews in 1998 for the late Dale Earnhardt and Mike Skinner, then again with Harvick and Robby Gordon.
That 2002 swap came during a rebuilding period for RCR, which was still putting itself back together a year after Earnhardts fatal accident. It was one of the many dips in performance Harvick has weathered, and hes indicated hes not willing to suffer through another rebuild.
Theres just a lot of scenarios that you hope play out right, and you just wait and see how it all plays out, he said with a sly smile.
Beyond that, he wouldnt bite, furthering the belief that Harvick has an ace in the hole hes waiting to play.
But what could it be that Harvick has in the works?
There was speculation he could be headed to Stewart-Haas Racing as an expanded third entry, but that would require sponsorship, and Stewart has yet to sell off Ryan Newmans current season. If Harvick is hoping to take Shell with him to a new home, the company will likely have a hard fight with Childress to move with a year left on its contract.
Harvick could be trying to move his own race team up to the Cup level, where he could potentially regain any General Motors support that he lost when Chapter 11 restructuring forced the automaker to drastically cut funding to the Nationwide and Truck Series programs. KHI, formed in 2002, only competes at the lower two levels with a variety of different drivers.
Harvicks never expressed an overwhelming desire to race his own stuff at the Cup level, so an imminent move in that direction seems unlikely.
Its possible hes shopping himself to other race teams, but the whole GM hook probably clouds that picture. Because of his longtime alliance to Chevrolet, he cant just easily sign with a team that uses Chrysler, Ford or Toyota. Then again, since Toyota is the only manufacturer still spending decent money in Nationwide and Trucks, Harvick could be angling for a deal for a manufacturer deal for KHI and a Cup ride with a prominent Toyota team.
This also could be just the groundwork for next season, when Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch both enter contract seasons. By creating an air of uncertainty around his RCR situation, Harvick could be leveraging himself so team owners make him the top free-agent choice. A similar thing happened when Joe Gibbs publicly admitted in late 2007 he wanted to sign Tony Stewart to an extension‚ even though Stewarts contract ran through 2009.
Team owners raced to Stewart with job offers, hoping hed consider something different before signing a new deal with Gibbs. It ultimately led to his defection‚ an early release from his contract to become co-owner of his own race team.
Its also possible that Harvick is simply trying to light a fire under Childress and spark the team owner to get his organization back in line.
Either way, Harvick cant possibly be his Happy self right now and isnt likely suffering as silently as hed like everyone to believe.