Kevin Harvick once lay in wait for Greg Biffle on the pit road wall at Bristol Motor Speedway. Harvick was angry — he always seemed to be angry in the early days of his NASCAR career — and he was going to make sure Biffle knew it the moment the race was over.
How did Harvick send his message?
He literally hurdled over Biffle’s car into a scrum and lunged at Biffle’s throat.
The Biffle incident back in 2002 would most certainly be on Harvick’s highlight reel. In his first two years in Cup, Harvick became the first driver to be “parked” by NASCAR for aggressive driving and he once tried to fight Ricky Rudd, usually considered a losing proposition. Harvick’s nickname has always been “Happy” and he was anything but in those early days.
He said after the 2002 parking — for intentionally wrecking Coy Gibbs in a Truck Series race at Martinsville and generally being a thorn in NASCAR’s side — that it was the wakeup call the 25-year-old needed.
“I haven’t been racing since I was 5 years old and made it this far in my career to throw it all away now,” Harvick said then. “Having to miss the race in Martinsville definitely got my attention.”
OK, so it hasn’t been exactly smooth sailing since that wakeup call.
But here Harvick is now, 100 NASCAR national wins later, and one of the most consistent drivers of his era.
Harvick doesn’t have the statistics to show just how exceptional a race car driver he is in part because he came along at the same time as another Californian. Jimmie Johnson, with a laid-back Southern California persona, debuted a year after Harvick and has collected seven championships along the way.
Harvick has so far managed just one championship. But he’s a Daytona 500 winner, a two-time Coca-Cola 600 winner, a Southern 500 winner and a Brickyard 400 winner.
That’s a Hall of Fame career right there, and one many might not have seen coming when he was thrust into a miserable situation at what should have been the best time of his life. Harvick was on schedule to drive a Cup car for Richard Childress in 2002, but when Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, that plan was scrapped.
Harvick got Earnhardt’s ride the next week, went forward with his scheduled Las Vegas wedding the week after that, and won his first Cup race the week after that. It was a whirlwind three weeks for the 24-year-old from Bakersfield, California, and when he had to time to take a breath, there was a lot going on.
Maybe that’s why he snapped so easily back then. And although some of that went away, he never really changed who he was. Harvick continued to stir the pot in the garage, spoke his mind even when he didn’t have anything nice to say, and never lacked for confidence. It was just over three years ago when Harvick, locked into the championship battle, shoved Brad Keselowski from behind to trigger a melee between Keselowski and Jeff Gordon.
Harvick just stood back and watched the chaos between two drivers he was racing for the title.
The next race was at Phoenix, where Harvick had to win, at a track here he always wins, and Harvick didn’t want to answer any questions. He didn’t want to talk about what role he might have had in the Keselowski scuffle, or how his championship was one race away from slipping through his fingers.
But as he thought more about it, Harvick, by then a father to a young son, saw the bigger picture. To be a role model to Keelan, he had to be a professional and do the right thing. So he met his media obligations in Phoenix, won the race, and won the championship a week later.
Harvick and his wife welcomed a daughter this offseason and he’s now a 42-year-old father of two. His future is in broadcasting and Fox already uses him quite a bit in its booth. But he’s still got racing left; he’s certainly shown that out of the gate this season with two dominant wins.
An eight-time Phoenix winner, including a streak of six wins in eight races, Harvick hasn’t been to victory lane at the track in three whole races.
He might snap that streak Sunday, and if he doesn’t, he might have something sarcastic to say about a competitor, his own crew, maybe even NASCAR. That’s just who Harvick is, 17 years after his whirlwind and emotional and untenable promotion to the big leagues. He made it work, doing it his way, and that’s likely how he’ll close his career.
More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org/