Kevin Harvick is firmly in the hunt for a second NASCAR Cup Series crown after three wins from five in 2018. But, amid his continued success on the world stage, he has not forgotten his roots, and recently returned home to California to headline the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West season opener. In an exclusive feature for Mobil 1 The Grid, Lee Spencer caught up with Harvick to discuss his love for grassroots racing and how it is energising his latest championship assault.
It was an unusually clear day heading north on I-5 out of Grapevine Canyon towards Bakersfield.
About 37 miles up the road, surrounded by fields of almond trees and oranges, a pristine half-mile oval appeared on the left like a racing oasis. Just five-years-old, Kern County Raceway Park is proof that motorsport is not just alive and well, it’s thriving in California.
Although there was a time when Kevin Harvick couldn’t wait to leave home for a bigger stage, now he’s doing everything he can to cultivate racing in this region – once a hotbed for both asphalt and dirt racing.
After an 18-year drought since he last competed at now-defunct Mesa Marin Raceway, 27 miles east of KCRP, Harvick returned home to headline the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West season opener on March 15. His debut at the track was celebrated by local fans and former competitors, as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion used his two-day homecoming as an opportunity to bring attention to the area and his fellow racers.
“In all honesty, the first thing you want to do is get out of here – because you don’t realise how much fun you’re having,” Harvick said. “But when you come back, it reminds you just how much fun racing is. I think that’s a lot of what some people have forgotten is we all did this at first as a hobby. And we did it for fun. Some of us turned it into a living, but most people here don’t do this as a living. Most of the guys that are working on this car have a real job, and they do this because they love it.
“That’s the part to me that is refreshing. We have a lot of people in the Cup garage that do it because they love it, but they also depend on it. So I think it’s really neat. We’ve drawn a lot of attention and enthusiasm over the last week to short-track racing, the K&N Pro Series East and West. We started a conversation that needed to be started.”
That conversation germinated in the post-race celebration at Phoenix Raceway after Harvick set a personal record by winning three straight Cup races. He and team co-owner Tony Stewart were reminiscing about their earlier racing days at Phoenix during the Copper World Classic – an event that married stock cars with open-wheel racing. The opportunity to race against more established drivers helped elevate Harvick’s and Stewart’s status in NASCAR and IndyCar, respectively, in the mid-1990s.
Without grassroots racing, Harvick knows he would have never reached the level of success he enjoys today. And that success has also provided him the gravitas to drive home the importance of local short tracks to the health of NASCAR’s future.
“We always talk about people having a platform, and, fortunately, I have a platform, and the platform is a little bit taller right now, so it’s a good time to get up on top and bark,” Harvick said. “We’ve been able to start a conversation about short-track racing, the (K&N Pro) East and the West Series and who’s paying attention to it and who’s not.
“Really, just starting that conversation is the most important part, because it puts us into people’s minds, and whether my ideas are right or wrong, we’ve at least started the conversation.”
But it’s not enough for Harvick to simply extol the benefits of short-track racing. He’s willing to go the extra mile.
So Harvick sacrificed two days with his family in Charlotte to participate in a K&N Pro Series race at Kern County, 30 minutes from his childhood home in Bakersfield. He lobbied for Kenny Shepherd’s Pro and Junior Late Model Series at Madera Speedway, a proving ground for aspiring racers. And after putting the bumper to Hailie Deegan during the Bakersfield 175 at Kern County last Thursday, he praised her composure and potential the following day during his media availability at Auto Club Speedway.
Harvick then presented Deegan to a national audience on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Show ‘Happy Hours’ on Tuesday.
“I’ve heard so much feedback this week from short track racing around the country,” Harvick said. “I’ve received text messages from people I’ve never even heard of before. It’s fun to be a part of that. Hopefully, we can start a wave of trying to fix and help all of these divisions that need the help.”
At 42, Harvick is off to the best start of his Cup career. His decision to leave Richard Childress Racing at the end of 2013 after 13 seasons was a game-changer. Since joining Stewart-Haas Racing, he has scored 17 of his 40 career wins, 15 of his 21 poles and his lone Cup championship (2014).
Harvick signed a contract extension in May 2016. At Auto Club Speedway, he said his plans outside of the cockpit are not “set in stone”. As for a return to team ownership, Harvick has no desire to invest the time or money. But he does enjoy consulting and contributes regularly at SHR – a role Harvick can see expanding once he retires from competition.
“The thing that I love about SHR is I wouldn’t have gone there if I didn’t think I could win a championship, because there was no reason for me to make a change if we were going to keep doing the same things we were doing,” Harvick said. “The unique part of it is it’s a racer’s mentality with (owners) Tony (Stewart) and Gene (Haas), and we have the financial stability between Gene’s position, our manufacturer’s position, and we’ve had solid sponsorship on our car every year.
“When you have that kind of stability in this day and age, it’s attractive to a lot of good people. That helps bring good people in your doors because they’re not worried about the team having any financial issues.”
That continuity has bolstered Harvick’s efforts this year.
“The coolest thing for me is I’ve been with Stewart-Haas Racing for five years now – and for the most part the same group of guys on my team,” Harvick said. “I don’t think anyone would honestly sit there and tell you they knew exactly where they would come out this year and where we would fall in the competition as far as whether we would be competitive or not competitive or off. So it has been a little bit of a surprise, honestly, because we didn’t know that it was going to be as good as it has been and we’ve been able to capitalise on it.
“For me, that’s the exciting part. We’ve capitalised on it and that shows the maturity of the team.”
Not even a penalty for broken rear window braces and an improper side skirt extension after his Las Vegas victory on March 11 could slow the pace.
“We overcame the penalty chatter with a win the next week, and that’s just the grit and determination of the team and the experience of the team.”
Greg Zipadelli, SHR’s competition director, is full of praise for Harvick and his approach to racing.
“He’s a racer, obviously, look at his history,” said Zipadelli. “He runs good at a lot of race tracks. He’s a guy that can win at any race track you go to. He’s a guy you want to have in your stable. He’s very detailed and he drives us all to be better.”
Ask Harvick about the difference in Stewart-Haas Racing since Aric Almirola has joined the driver ranks and he beams. There’s not another team roster in NASCAR that currently boasts four winning drivers. Having the racers committed to each other has improved the overall performance of the organisation in the first five weeks of the season. For the first time since the organisation expanded to four full-time cars, SHR drivers are all ranked in the top 12 in the standings.
At Phoenix, SHR put all four drivers in the top 10 for the first time in a single race.
“The 10 car has been off every year I’ve been at SHR,” Harvick said. “It hasn’t been productive. To see Aric’s enthusiasm and excitement is good. That puts pressure on Clint (Bowyer), myself and Kurt (Busch) to take that and elevate our game. Try to do the things that he’s doing to make ourselves better.
“He spends a lot of time in the shop. People notice that. So you have to make sure that you’re spending time in the shop. That’s part of the process of keeping everybody honest. We have four teams and things evolve faster than they do with three. Everybody is doing a great job right now. In the end, SHR could have won every race. We were within a half lap of winning every race this year. Clint’s running well. We had all four cars in the top 10 at Phoenix – that’s quite a feat for the entire organization – and really neat to be a part of.”
With the current solidarity in the Stewart-Haas organisation, it could be just the catalyst that propels Harvick to his second Cup championship.