Kevin Harvick, center, crew chief Gil Martin, left, and owner Richard Childress, conferring at Daytona International Speedway in February, enjoyed their first victory of 2013 Saturday night at Richmond.(Photo: Sam Greenwood, Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick cut down talk of a lame duck season with Saturday night’s win at Richmond
Harvick is leaving Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas Racing next season
Crew chief Gil Martin admitted questionable pit strategies had hampered Harvick
(PhatzRadio / USA Today) — RICHMOND, Va. — Kevin Harvick and his No. 29 team spent much of the preseason insisting there would be no performance drop in 2013 despite Harvick’s impending departure for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Harvick, crew chief Gil Martin and team owner Richard Childress all said the driver’s plans to leave shouldn’t affect the team’s on-track outlook. Professionals, they said, can put any such thoughts aside and focus on their jobs.
But eight races into the season, things weren’t going very well. It seemed as if there was some merit to the lame duck talk after all.
Funny how winning changes everything.
Harvick’s late-race surge to victory at Richmond suddenly improved the outlook for what had been a disappointing and frustrating season. With one stellar restart, Harvick not only got himself into the top 10 in points for the first time all year but also earned a key win that could count toward the Chase for the Sprint Cup wild card if needed.
“I think we’ve got a great shot of winning that championship this year,” Childress said, reciting a line he hadn’t used too often lately.
Harvick’s best finish in the Sprint Cup Series in 12 seasons is third, in 2010 and 2011.
Though Harvick is ninth in points a quarter of the way through the season now, his finishes hadn’t been lighting up the scoring pylon. He had as many top-10 finishes heading into Richmond (one) as rookie Danica Patrick and typical start-and-park driver Michael McDowell. Vitriolic sniping on the team radio — which is a public forum for anyone with a scanner to hear — had been frequent in recent weeks when Harvick finished 12th-14th in six of seven races.
Martin acknowledged some of his pit strategies hadn’t worked out at the end of races, calling 2013 “one of the most difficult years for making decisions.”
That’s because the rules are such that more cars are on the lead lap now than even a few years ago, meaning there’s more risk when deciding to pit for tires late in the race instead of keeping track position.
Martin has tended to be “on the wrong end of that,” he said, sometimes playing it too conservatively. Not this time.
Harvick drove up through the field on fresh tires from seventh to first in just one lap. He cured a lot of the team’s ills in the process.
As Harvick sipped an oversized can of Budweiser during the postrace news conference, he brushed off talk of any discord with Martin.
“We’ve been through a lot,” Harvick said. “I can sense when he’s frustrated. He knows when I’m frustrated. It’s not something you take personal. By the time you get to Monday, he’s working in the shop; you just got to let it go.”
That Harvick is leaving at all after what could be a Chase-caliber season — or better — might raise some eyebrows as long as Stewart-Haas struggles.
SHR’s three drivers have all had disappointing seasons so far: Three-time champion Tony Stewart is 22nd in the points standings, off to his worst career start in the series. He had a chance for a top-five finish — his first of the season — on the restart until Kurt Busch bumped him out of the way. Ryan Newman is 16th and Patrick is 26th.
What will people say if none of the drivers from Harvick’s future team make the Chase while his current team makes a run at the title?
Plus, Harvick’s RCR teammates have been keeping pace lately as well. Paul Menard is 10th in points one-quarter through the season and Jeff Burton scored his first top-five finish of the season at Richmond.
Harvick isn’t worried about SHR — or anything related to 2014 — for the time being.
“I know everybody makes a big deal out of what you’re going to do next year, but man, next year is so far away right now,” he said. “You’re week-to-week: What are we working on this week? What track are we going to? What do we do to make it better?
“You lose track of time. You lose track of everything that’s going on because you’re so buried in what we do on a week-to-week basis.”
Childress is holding out hope the team can deliver what it said it could all along: Sticking together despite knowing the end of their relationship is just months away.
“I think we got everyone working in the right direction,” said Childress, who won six championships with the late Dale Earnhardt. “Hopefully we’ll be in Vegas (at the postseason banquet) smiling big.”
Follow Jeff Gluck on Twitter @jeff_gluck