Even a mind honed to absolute focus from years of driving up to 200 mph for hours at a time can be blown. Even a heart conditioned to a sitting rate of 47 beats per minute can come thumping through your chest at the strangest imes. Kevin Harvick realized these things Tuesday on the south lawn of the White House, in the bright afternoon sunlight, when the man standing next to him started to speak.
“You’re walking out the doors of the White House with the president of the United States — to listen to a speech about you,” Harvick mused a few hours after the White House ceremony where President Obama honored him as NASCAR’s 2014 Sprint Cup champion. “I grew up in the poor part of town in Bakersfield, California, scrimping and scraping for everything we had, to go race go-karts or eat lunch. It’s hard to get your head around that.”
All across NASCAR, which pulls into Richmond this weekend for Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400, there are plenty of folks having trouble getting their heads around what Harvick is doing. From the end of 2014, when he won the final two races to edge Ryan Newman for the Sprint Cup title, to his sizzling start this season, he is dominating the sport as few have done.
A recent streak of eight straight top-two finishes was the longest since Richard Petty had 11 straight in 1975. Even when Harvick finishes back in the pack, as he did with a 38th-place finish at the Food City 500 last weekend in Bristol, Tenn. — “We made a mistake and got ourselves tore up,” he explained — a closer examination reveals the depth of his domination, as he led for 184 of the race’s 468 laps.
This season, he has led for 35.7 percent of all laps — an astounding number when you consider each race features 43 cars, about half of which are legitimate threats to win. The next-best percentage belongs to Joey Logano, at 12.2 percent. For a guy raised on racing — who grew up idolizing fellow Bakersfield native Rick Mears, and who was tabbed to replace Dale Earnhardt himself in the famed GM Goodwrench Chevrolet following Earnhardt’s death in 2001 — the historical implications are mind-boggling.
“I understand what people like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt and Cale Yarborough and those guys meant to the sport — and the next thing you know, you’re getting compared to this streak or that stat,” Harvick, 39, said. “It’s amazing. But when it’s going good, you have to almost work harder — because you know how hard it is when things are not going well. You have to work twice as hard to catch up.”
Harvick’s run of dominance has validated a series of seismic, life-changing decisions he and wife DeLana — herself a racing lifer and the daughter of a veteran NASCAR driver — have made in the past few years. In 2011, they closed up shop on Kevin Harvick Incorporated, the racing team they launched a decade earlier.
“We were at the point where DeLana and I were just over it. It had just become so much work to keep it afloat, just to get [profit margins] to zero. It was 24-7,” he said.
In July 2012, DeLana gave birth to their first child, a son named Keelan, and six months later Harvick confirmed he would be switching from Richard Childress Racing, his home since 2000, to Stewart-Haas Racing beginning in 2014. At the end of 2014, the family moved from Oak Ridge, N.C., to Charlotte to be closer to the SHR shop.
Harvick said the success he found in 2014, with his first Sprint Cup championship, could not have happened without the changes he made in his life, tumultuous as they were.
“The decisions we sat down and made, whether it was picking up and moving the whole family to Charlotte, or changing race teams or selling race teams . . . we put ourselves in position to be good parents, and also be more competitive on Sunday,” he said. As for the switch from Childress to Stewart-Haas, he said, “It had just become a little stagnant for me. Mentally it was just time for me to go somewhere else that [made] me excited to show up at the shop or show up at the race.”