By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service
Kevin Harvick freely admits a transformation, an aging-up of sorts. There was a time in his 19-season Monster Energy NASCAR Cup career when the 2014 champion would be visibly frustrated during a race and fully prepared to settle a score with another driver on pit road or in the garage later.
But having children, earning a Cup title and the art of aging have mellowed the 43-year old champ, by his own admission. It has not dampened his motivation to win races and championships however. And in the wake of an eight-win title-near-miss 2018 season, there is plenty of high motivation – an example to be set on-track and off-track.
And during an interview Friday, Harvick offered up a real-life example of his sage evolution as evidenced in a recent interaction with his six-year old son, Keelan.
“I was pulling out of the Chipotle the other day after lunch and I go bolting across the street and I get a “What the hell are you doing dad?’’ Harvick said, recounting the story with a smile. “And I was like, ‘what?’ I kind of ignored it for a minute and then I said, “Where did you hear that?
“It was the day we all sat in the TV booth together [for a drivers led broadcast]. I can’t necessarily blame it on [teammate] Clint [Bowyer] but it sounded a lot like something he would say. It was funny, but a moment after that you had to explain, we couldn’t use that word.’’
Harvick’s work on-track has been equally as creative as preferred word choices. He has an impressive nine top-10s through the opening 14 races of the 2019 season, but the Stewart-Haas Racing driver is still looking to earn his first winner’s trophy. By comparison, by the 15th race last season, Harvick had already visited victory lane five times.
But Sunday’s Firekeepers Casino 400 (2 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is a legitimate good-bet chance to get back into that win column. And Harvick knows that.
He won the August, 2018 Cup race on the Michigan two-miler and finished runner-up to SHR teammate Clint Bowyer in the June visit. He has top-five finishes in the last seven Michigan races. So while he may fluctuate between frustration and promise the first half of this season, Harvick must certainly feel Michigan provides a prime opportunity to change the vibe.
“I am beyond all the frustration,’’ Harvick said. “To me it is now a challenge just because I feel like this is very similar to 2014 and 2017. I can see the progression in the speed of the cars and the things we have done and honestly, we just chose the wrong direction to start the year.
“Our cars weren’t where they needed to be and everyone realizes that as a company. We had some situations where we were in position to win some races and had some things go wrong, whether it was my team or the 14 [Bowyer’s]. In the end, our cars just weren’t fast enough.
“I think everybody has kept their head down and are looking at it as a challenge now.’’
A frustrating 22nd-place finish at Pocono Raceway last weekend dropped Harvick from third to fifth in the championship standings. He’s had five top-five finishes – a season best fourth-place effort five times – but only two top 10s in the last five races.
Michigan presents a sort of’ “circle the date” race for Harvick – he is objectively one of the favorites. And he is more than ready to capitalize.
“Aside from the second half of the Charlotte race, I think over the last month or so, the cars are coming the right direction,’’ Harvick said. “[Teammate] Aric (Almirola) had a great test at Indianapolis and that is really the benefit of having quality teammates and people that communicate and an organization like we have with Gene [Haas] and Tony [Stewart] letting the racers go race. Sometimes that over-rules the engineering.
“We are pulling the rope in the right direction now and feel like we have made some good gains. This is part of that challenge that is a cycle. I have talked about this for years. You have to build, you have to rebuild, build and rebuild. You are on the good side of it and the bad side of it and it all has a funny way of cycling itself through.
“We have had a number of challenge since I have been here with Tony in and out of the car and drivers changing. It is a resilient group of people that continue to set aside the frustrations and look forward.’’
Harvick and his No. 4 SHR Ford team have certainly turned in the effort – leading a race best 104 laps at Kansas only to finish 13th, and leading a race best 88 laps at Las Vegas, only to finish fourth.
There was a time Harvick would admit he would be at wits end solving the close calls. But the father of two young children – Keelan and one-year old daughter Piper – concedes his overall mindset has shifted. He is still fearlessly vocal about subjects he has strong opinions about. But he is less likely to allow it to take an emotional toll for the overly good or the regrettably bad.
“It is just kind of the evolution of life that follows with it,’’ Harvick said. “At this particular point there is obviously some people that don’t like to hear what I have to say, which is fine. There are some people that you feel like you are on their side and it is not really about sides, it is about opinion and you can take it for what it is worth.
“At this point, it doesn’t matter to me what you think about it, it is my opinion and I will move on from it. I will happily listen to yours as well and it will be a great debate and we will have fun with it.
“I think the progression of life in general has followed the progression of my career. Having kids was great because you had more responsibility that you had to come home to than you did before. Things that you say, especially the older Keelan gets, are more magnified.’’
And at this point in particular, Harvick would prefer to speak again in victory burnouts and trophy hoists.