If good things come in threes, Kevin Harvick has much to smile about. This is a milestone year for Harvick, who is celebrating his 10th season driving the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, his 10th anniversary of marriage to the former DeLana Linville and the 10th anniversary of the couple's hugely successful Kevin Harvick Inc. team, which fields cars in two NASCAR divisions and builds them for competitors as well.
Although his decade-long tenure with car owner Richard Childress has had more than its share of ups and downs, Harvick the driver had a breakout 2010 – and that has continued so far this season, with back-to-back Sprint Cup victories at Fontana and Martinsville.
Those two tracks are places five-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson used to own, but Harvick passed Johnson on the last lap to win in Southern California and made a late-race charge to thwart Dale Earnhardt Jr. the following week at the Virginia short track. Harvick might not be the title favorite now – Johnson has to be dethroned before someone else earns that status – but along with Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, he certainly is one of the favorites to finally knock Johnson off.
“Those guys are five-time champions, won a ton of races,” says Harvick of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team. “We feel as a team we can race right with ‘em… But then, so does everybody else. We've just got to keep chipping away at it.”
“Chipping away at it” may be far too modest an assessment of just how far Harvick has come. A native of Bakersfield, Calif., he cut his teeth on the highly competitive short tracks of the west, winning the championship now known as the K&N Pro Series West in 1998. Two years later, he drove an RCR car to Rookie of the Year honors in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and was set to run for the championship in 2001. The death of Dale Earnhardt forced Harvick to grow up quickly. He was just 25 when he made his Cup debut at Rockingham, N.C., in the hastily renumbered and repainted RCR No. 29 Chevrolet. Two days later, he and DeLana were married. It was a lot to come to grips with in a very short time.
“It's hard to be in the shadow of somebody,” says Jeff Burton, who's been Harvick's RCR teammate since mid-'04, “and there's no way Kevin could step into that car after the tragedy without being in Earnhardt's shadow. That's hard. I don't want to speak for Kevin, but it takes a while to separate yourself from that.”
Yet almost from the beginning, Harvick set out to do things his own way. He and DeLana, a former public relations rep for two-time Busch Series champion Randy LaJoie, had their first KHI entry on track by mid-'01 in the NASCAR Truck Series and in KHI's first race, Kevin finished second to three-time series champ Jack Sprague at Richmond.
DeLana grew up in racing as much as Kevin did. Her father, the late John Linville, made 136 career NASCAR Nationwide Series starts, so racing was what she knew. “I was at the racetrack every weekend,” recalls DeLana, “so I didn't really do a lot of kid things. I didn't do soccer or Brownies or anything like that. I was always with my dad at the track.”
Unlike most racing wives, DeLana is not the shy, retiring type. She and Kevin are high-energy, high-intensity personalities, and she's an active partner in the business. Her decision to wear a team firesuit atop the pit cart during races sparked some controversy in the infamous Kevin Harvick-Joey Logano spat of 2010 when the young driver famously remarked of Harvick, “His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do.” Within 24 hours of Logano's remark, DeLana decided to sell T-shirts that read, “I wear the firesuit in this family!” They turned out to be huge hits.
Then again, most of what the Harvicks have done with KHI has been successful. The team operates an 80,000sq.ft shop in Kernersville, N.C., fielding three full-time teams in the Camping World Truck Series and two more in Nationwide. Already, KHI has won two Truck Series championships with Ron Hornaday Jr. at the wheel, and the team has excelled at finding sponsorship for its vehicles – no easy task these days.
Other owner/drivers have noticed. Kyle Busch admits he's modeling Kyle Busch Motorsports after KHI, going as far as to hire Hornaday's former crew chief, Rick Ren, as his competition director. Tony Stewart, meanwhile, wrote in his column here in RACER a couple months back: “I don't think Kevin gets the credit he deserves for what he and his wife DeLana have done, building that team from the ground up. A lot of organizations have joined forces and then gotten stronger, but Kevin and DeLana have built KHI from ground zero. And it's not just one division: they have multiple divisions and, on the business side of it, they probably build half the trucks in the Camping World Truck Series. The Harvicks are doing things right, obviously: they're not just doing it and surviving.”
Harvick says growing KHI has been a huge challenge: “It's definitely a lot harder to build something, especially at this level,” he says. “To put the right people, the right equipment, sponsors and everything together takes a long time. You can't do it in one year. We've been fortunate over the 10 years to put together some good people and make it through a lot of good times and a lot of bad times.”
The KHI drivers definitely appreciate what Kevin and DeLana have built.
“I've had the equipment and the team around me to compete for a win every single week, and there's not much more you can ask for,” says Elliott Sadler, who has renewed energy racing full-time this year in Nationwide, driving a KHI Chevy.
As far as his aspirations for the long-awaited first Sprint Cup title, Harvick insists he and the No. 29 RCR team are ready. After taking the title fight to the last race of 2010 before finishing a close third behind Johnson and Denny Hamlin, he's a legitimate threat.
“There are so many things that are so much better than this time one year ago,” says Harvick of RCR. “I feel a lot better and the good thing about it is that it's a lot of the same people we keep building on.”
Veteran crew chief Gil Martin (NEAR LEFT), who has been with RCR since 2000, has been a steadying influence on Harvick, who's a notorious hothead on the team radio. In the old days, if Harvick's car wasn't to his liking or if he had a bad pit stop, it might derail him. Not anymore. That change has been a key to his success behind the wheel the last two seasons.
“What happens is he gets the opportunity to vent because the car is terrible and he needs to vent,” says Martin. “I think in the beginning when he would do that, we would somewhat take it to heart and take it personal, and now we just continue to let him vent! We go about our business and decide what we are going to do at the next pit stop, what we'll change next. We feel good about it and so does he, so it works out good in the end.”
“If things didn't go right, we brush it off when we get on the airplane and go home and come back the next week with a fresh attitude,” explains Harvick. “Gil does a very good job there. He's very good with the guys and if you have a bad day or I say something wrong it doesn't become a bigger deal than it needs to be. They understand I'm emotional and they don't want me to not speak my mind or hold it in. They want me to get it out and get it over with and move on in the race and that's it. It's a good chemistry and a good balance between everybody.”
So having conquered that communication issue, Harvick is now one of the most feared finishers in NASCAR. And following his last-gasp passes for the lead at Fontana and Martinsville, he's even earned the nickname of “The Closer.”
“My dad always told me the pay window didn't open until the checkered flag was flown, and we survived and raced off of what we won each week,” he says. “We were always around at the end and would take advantage of other people's mistakes. I guess it's just the way I was taught to race. You have to be around at the end to win these races.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the June 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.