From high-school wrestler to persistent NASCAR Cup Championship contender, Kevin Harvick knows how to do it the hard way. As the #4 team head to Homestead Miami for this Sunday’s season finale, the prospect of a second career NASCAR title is on the cards. But Harvick will have to do without his Crew Chief Rodney Childers by his side, after a rules infringement cost him his victory at Texas Motor Speedway. Speaking to Lee Spencer for Mobil 1 The Grid, Harvick, Childers and stand-in Crew Chief Tony Gibson explain why adversity has been a defining source of motivation for both he and the team.
Kevin Harvick had one mission last weekend at ISM Raceway; to advance to the Championship 4 at Homestead Miami Speedway.
Entering the weekend, he held just a three-point advantage over his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch. Earlier in the week, he lost his crew chief Rodney Childers and car chief Cheddar Smith to a two-race suspension for an illegal spoiler.
But against those odds, who better than The Closer to carry the No. 4 Ford to the finish?
Harvick is a fighter. He was a high school wrestler, whose work ethic was forged from blue-collar roots in Bakersfield, California. Harvick worked odd jobs to race. His tenacity carried him from the West Coast to the hotbed of stock car racing – North Carolina.
“Where he grew up, that town, that’s how everyone was,” Rodney Childers told Mobil 1 The Grid. “That’s the way he was raised. His dad was pretty hard on him – and pushed him – and I think that what’s made him into who he is right now.”
On Sunday, Nov. 18, Harvick, 42, will attempt to win his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title. The 2014 champion – the first driver to win the Cup under the elimination format – has been competitive for most of his 18 years on NASCAR’s top tour.
But Harvick’s move to Stewart-Haas Racing five years ago, and his alignment with Childers, elevated the team to a perennial title contender. The team was specifically built around Harvick and his personal needs and preferences as a driver.
On Nov. 4, the team appeared fast-tracked for the final race at Homestead after winning Texas – giving Harvick his first eight-win season. Three days later, at the NASCAR R&D Center, inspectors discovered that the spoiler was mounted improperly. The sanctioning body hit the crew with an L1 penalty which included the loss of 60 points, the suspension of Childers and the loss of Harvick’s automatic berth in the championship race.
While that certainly changed the dynamic entering the final two races of the year, there was no obstacle that would unravel this team, particularly Harvick.
“That’s really nothing new for our team,” Harvick said. “When you look at the past five years, we’ve obviously dealt with a lot of things – good things, bad things. We’ve been fortunate to be together for a while now and I’ve dealt with high pressure situations, and understand what it takes to win a championship. I’ve done that. Hopefully, we can put it all together this week. It’s been a great year. And it’s been a great five years with a group of people that I just enjoy racing with.”
At Phoenix, Harvick was laser-focused. He refused to be drawn into the drama surrounding the penalty. He simply concentrated on the task at hand. Under the direction of substitute crew chief Tony Gibson, he won the pole on Friday and secured the best pit box for the Can-Am 500. On Saturday, Harvick posted the fastest time in both practices before settling in for the main event.
“Being around him and being around that whole program, they all step up, not just Kevin,” Gibson said. “They are a tight group, they work really good and really hard together. But Kevin keeps them married together really well and keeps their spirits up.
“He laid out the plan, and that was to go and win. Take it one practice at a time, one stage at a time and, hopefully, I don’t screw things up.”
Everything went according to plan. Harvick led the first 72 laps and appeared on the way to winning the first stage when he cut his right-front tire. Harvick coasted gingerly around the one-mile track in an effort not to incur additional damage. Gibson called for a two-tire stop, knowing that the pits were closed and he would be penalized a lap in the process. Harvick restarted 27th – one lap down – and started the arduous task of carving through traffic.
Although Gibson has been a crew chief for a number of Cup teams over the last 15 seasons, never has he seen a squad with as much moxie as the one Childers has assembled.
“This team right here, when you get down inside it and watch how it works on the inside, they approach every race to win races, not to win stages or points or lead laps,” Gibson said. “It’s about winning races no matter what the circumstances are.
“It’s just they want to show everybody that they are the best, and they deserve to be in this position to fight for a championship.”
Harvick’s gritty performance at Phoenix enabled him to drive back into the second-place with 20 laps remaining. He eventually finished fifth and easily transferred to the final four for the fourth time in five years.
After the race, Harvick used the comeback as a teaching moment for his six-year-old son Keelan on the importance of perseverance.
“In those type of situations, you have to keep fighting forward,” Harvick said. “You have to keep thinking about what you need to do to gain as many spots as you can, because every lap matters. Every lap, it changes. With every lap, we were probably in a better position than we were the lap before.
“I told Keelan, ‘You remember that time when I told you to never give up? Always give 100-percent, every time you’re doing something? Did you watch any of that race? We were way behind. We were in a hole, but no one changed their demeanour. No one ever changed their tone. We kept marching ahead.”
When it comes to adversity, there’s no one Childers would rather have behind the wheel.
“I don’t think there’s a person in the field that can step up to the plate like he does,” Childers said. “He always has that little bit of extra left. Everybody always thinks that when we get our backs against the wall, we just bring a super hot-rod car to the track, and then we’re faster than everyone else. The cars aren’t that much different. It’s him stepping it up and making it happen.”
Even now, at the top of his profession, Harvick races with a self-proclaimed chip on his shoulder – but that chip has served him well. He learned a lot about himself wrestling for four years in high school. He learned that he didn’t want to want to join the labourers in the oil fields of central California. Most important, Harvick learned how to survive.
“You have to have a good work ethic, but you have to have that survival mode in there as well,” Harvick said. “Part of that survival mode is giving everything that you have, even when it’s not going good.
“For me, there’s always some incentive in proving to people that you can do something that isn’t what they think you should do. You can look at my whole career. ‘You shouldn’t win. You couldn’t win. And then you did.’ Last week, it was, ‘Yep, this penalty is going to slow them down.’ But when they take 10 points away, we find 20. It’s just the mentality of the race team. It’s always ‘push the limits, and when your back is against the wall, make it better than it was before.’”
Without Childers calling the shots, without Cheddar Bob working on his car, let the competition believe that Harvick is at a disadvantage this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It might just be the fire that fuels the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team to its second championship.