Harvick to retire at the end of the upcoming season, my 3 takeaways

A few months ago in Phoenix, Kevin Harvick was no committal on his 2024 plans. He said he would make a decision one way or the other by time we get to Daytona next February. However, it was behind the scenes, starting to become known in the racing circles that Stewart-Haas Racing was planning on a future without Harvick in it though. His contract ran through the 2023 season and the team was starting to realize that he wouldn’t be back in the No. 4 Ford for 2024. The question was, would Harvick be in the garage at all?

On Thursday, that news was confirmed. Harvick announced that the 2023 season will be his 23rd and last. That gives us one last time to appreciate the 47-year-old’s greatness because I feel like now that we have time to take a look back and reflect on his career, I don’t feel like he got enough credit for truly how good he was.

“There is absolutely nothing else in the world that I enjoy doing more than going to the racetrack, and I’m genuinely looking forward to this season,” said Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing. “But as I’ve gone through the years, I knew there would come a day where I had to make a decision. When would it be time to step away from the car?

“I’ve sought out people and picked their brains. When I asked them when they knew it was the right time, they said it’ll just happen, and you’ll realize that’s the right moment. You’ll make a plan and decide when it’s your last year.

“It’s definitely been hard to understand when that right moment is because we’ve been so fortunate to run well. But sometimes there are just other things going on that become more important and, for me, that time has come.”

Harvick’s decision to make the 2023 season his last comes as the father of two eyes more family time. Together with wife, DeLana, they’ll continue to visit racetracks, but Harvick won’t be wearing a firesuit. His 10-year-old son, Keelan, is an avid karter who races internationally, and his 5-year-old daughter, Piper, is already following in the family’s tire tracks, wheeling a go-kart of her own.

“In the last year, I think I’ve seen Keelan race three times while he’s been in Europe. I go to the go-kart track with Piper and she makes twice as many strides in a day while I’m there than she would in a day when I’m not there. It takes a lot of time to organize the level of racing they’re doing, and to be around that is important to me,” Harvick said.

Karting is where Harvick’s career began. He was five when he first started racing in and around Southern California. Twenty years later, after competing and winning on the NASCAR Southwest Tour, earning the 1998 NASCAR Winston West championship, advancing to the NASCAR Truck Series and then the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Harvick was in Cup. However, it was under incredibly trying circumstances and immense pressure.

“With championships across several NASCAR series and a NASCAR Cup Series win total that ranks in the top 10, Kevin Harvick’s legacy as one of the all-time great drivers is secure. Beyond his success inside a race car, Kevin is a leader who truly cares about the health and the future of our sport – a passion that will continue long after his driving days are complete. On behalf of the France Family and all of NASCAR, I congratulate Kevin on a remarkable career and wish him the best of luck in his final season.” – Steve Phelps, NASCAR President

“I competed against Kevin for a long time and I was so happy to finally have him a part of our race team,” said Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion who co-owns Stewart-Haas Racing with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas. “He’s incredibly reliable – consistent and calculated on the track with a drive to always be better. That’s what you want in a teammate. He knows what he needs to be successful, and his will to win helped elevate our entire company.”

Stewart retired as a NASCAR driver at the end of the 2016 season. His hope for Harvick’s final season is sanguine and straightforward.

“I want Kevin to savor every lap this season, to compete like hell and to take it all in. He’s made all of us at Stewart-Haas Racing incredibly proud and we want to make his last season his best season.”

Under Valued Career

In a career that started in an unexpected twist that he had to take over the rebranded 29 car at Richard Childress Racing in wild fashion following the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt, Harvick will conclude a storied career that will make him a for sure first ballot Hall of Famer.

I mean just look at what he did. His greatness started almost instantly.

While RCR was still reeling from Earnhardt’s death, Harvick took the team to victory lane just three weeks later in thrilling fashion in Atlanta. That was the first of two wins during his rookie season while he also was running full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series (formerly Busch Series) as well.

“We just found a way to make it work, and that’s what we did all year long,” said Harvick, who won a second Xfinity Series title in 2006, again running the full Cup and Xfinity schedules.

From literally no Cup starts, to two wins, six top five finishes, 16 top 10’s and a ninth place points finish despite missing the Daytona 500 since he wasn’t even planned to race in Cup that year was remarkable. He also won the 2001 Busch Series title as well.

“Dale’s passing changed our sport forever, and it changed my life forever and the direction it took. It took me a long time to really get comfortable to really even think about things that happened that day,” Harvick said.

“Looking back on it now, you realize the importance of getting in the Cup car, and then we wound up winning my first race at Atlanta in the 29 car after Dale’s death. The significance and the importance of keeping that car on the racetrack and winning that race early at Atlanta – knowing now what it meant to the sport, and just that moment in general of being able to carry on, was so important.”

2002 was his second year in Cup, but initially slated to be his first season. He took a step back. However, 2003 on, well he was an annual championship threat.

From 2001 through 2013 at RCR, Harvick won 23 races. The thing is, he surprisingly announced at the end of 2012, that he’d join Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2014 season.

That was a move that paid off even more.

2014 was his first year with a new team. It was the first year with his new playoff format. Harvick took home his first and only title then on the heels of 5 wins in 36 races.

In nine seasons at SHR, Harvick has won 37 races. Combined, that’s 60 wins in a tie with Kyle Busch or ninth all-time. In fact, the lead the active drivers on the career wins list. No one in the Cup garage now has more.

Everybody ahead of him is in the Hall. Why wouldn’t he be?

Harvick has won a Cup title, two Xfinity (Busch Series) titles, a Winston West championship, an IROC crown, a three-time Brickyard 400 champion, a 2007 Daytona 500 triumph, a two-time Coca-Cola 600 winner, a two-time winner in the Southern 500 and has taken the 2018 All-Star race win.

Every big race there was to win, he won it.

He is only 99 laps shy of leading a staggering 16,000 laps in his career – one of only 11 drivers in the history of the sport to do so – and the Bakersfield, California native is slated to make his 800th career Cup Series start April 23 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

That’s why I feel like Harvick’s career has largely been unappreciated.

It was controversial as Harvick was frequent in spats. He was never afraid to call out his peers or even NASCAR for what he felt was wrong. It created a lot of controversy, but it didn’t affect his on track success.

The most notable moment off track was him calling out Dale Earnhardt Jr. in an indirect way. Harvick was asked about NASCAR’s popularity waning and made a point that a problem of that nature was that their most popular driver, wasn’t winning enough.

He felt like Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the face of the sport but maybe shouldn’t be. That was more on name rather than success. Others like himself were enjoying a ton of success on track but the attention was on the driver not vying for titles.

That deeply hurt Earnhardt for which they had a rift for a while over those comments Harvick made. To make it worse, Harvick was the one to take over his dads right, remember?

But in an era to where NASCAR racing has changed so much, from a season champion awarded on points, to the numerous changes to the playoff format, to stage racing, to four generations of race cars, Harvick has won in all. He had success in everything he’s driven no matter the rules of package.

With Jeff Gordon dominating early in Harvick’s career, to Jimmie Johnson’s reign to the new parity, Harvick was mostly overshadowed by their success and it was a shame.

It’s not over yet though. We have 36 more races to witness a generational talent.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 04: Chase Briscoe, driver of the #14 Mahindra Tractors Ford, drives during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 04, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Who’s Next Up At SHR?

As we look back and celebrate a great career that the 47-year-old California native has had, one thing being overshadowed now is, where does Stewart-Haas Racing turn to replace him?

As teams in the NASCAR garage have gotten younger, SHR is in transition. Aric Almirola almost retired at the end of last season. He’s back for another year in 2023. However, his days are numbered as this could be his final year too. If not 2023, I don’t see him going much past 2024.

Now that we for sure know that 2023 will be Harvick’s last, there’s a very real threat that none of the drivers that were with this organization as soon as 2019, will be racing for them in 2024.

However, as SHR has taken a step back in performance, who’s going to take the baton and carry SHR into the future?

“I know you don’t like to hear these things,” Tony Stewart said in a video tribute to Harvick, “but you’re the flagship at SHR. Single-handedly, without a doubt, the greatest racer we ever had.”

When SHR was formed for their debut season in 2009, they immediately won. However, this was Tony Stewart’s team then despite them also having Ryan Newman as a part of it.

Stewart won 13 of the first 15 races for SHR. Newman had 3 total wins from 2009 through 2013.

2014 it transitioned really over to Kevin Harvick. SHR doubled their fleet that year going from a 2 car team to a 4 car operation as they added Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick while letting Newman go.

Harvick won the championship that year. He and Busch were the veteran presence that SHR needed as Stewart’s shelf life was waning.

Over their next 23 trips to victory lane, Busch and Harvick combined for 22 of them. Stewart had one.

Clint Bowyer won for them twice in 2018 but this was largely in the midst of Harvick’s reign.

SHR has won 69 total races entering the 2023 season, Harvick has won 37 of them. In fact, from 2019 on, Harvick has 16 of SHR’s 19 wins with only Cole Custer (once), Aric Almirola (once) and Chase Briscoe (once) having won in that span.

So when Harvick walks, out goes 37 wins and counting with him. Almirola has two trips to victory lane at SHR, Briscoe has one and Ryan Preece has never won a Cup race yet. I would sense that Custer would be the easiest replacement for Harvick to move him back up, but he has that lone win in 2020 too.

In theory, if Almirola returns in 2024, SHR would boast a lineup with 5 career wins (that’s if they don’t win at all in 2023). If Almirola walks too, out goes his 3 career wins.

Which is why the most intriguing aspect to Harvick announcing his retirement is where does SHR turn? Who’s going to be their new on track leader?

LONG POND, PENNSYLVANIA – JULY 24: (L-R) Daniel Suarez, driver of the #99 CommScope Chevrolet, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 DeWalt Toyota, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&Ms Toyota, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, talk backstage during driver intros prior to the NASCAR Cup Series M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400 at Pocono Raceway on July 24, 2022 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

NASCAR Garage Getting Younger And Younger

With Kurt Busch walking away last year and now Kevin Harvick at the end of this year, the next longest tenured driver in the sport is Kyle Busch (2005), Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.. Both Hamlin and Truex Jr. were actually part-time 2005 and full-time 2006. Even their days are winding down. Next up is Joey Logano (2009), Brad Keselowski (part-time 2009, full-time 2010), Aric Almirola (part-time 2007, full-time 2012) and Michael McDowell (part-time 2008, full-time 2010.

Just think about that. The elder statesmen in the sport for 2024 would be Kyle Busch, Hamlin, Truex (if he returns), Logano and Keselowski….

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