Unsolved Mysteries: Kevin Harvick
March 13, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
So what’s wrong? Short answer. Nothing probably. The season is only four races old and there’s a lot of time for the 29, 30 and 31 teams to turn things around. (That’s why I’m writing this column mid-week. That way if Harvick wins Sunday you’ll have forgotten I said anything.) The wind tunnel numbers leaked yesterday seem to indicate the Chevy teams are fighting with one hand tied behind their back and that will be addressed. More direct answer. Hey, if I knew Richard Childress would hire me to fix things and I’d be tooling around Mooresville in a Bentley convertible. The mysterious answer. A rare confluence of the Childress Racing ten year jinx and Harvick’s sophomore slump.
What is the Childress ten year jinx? It’s an inexplicable slump in their fortunes that seems to occur in the third year of every decade. (1982, 1992, now 2002)
For those of you new to the sport, Richard Childress first hooked up with driver Dale Earnhardt 2/3rds of the way through the 1981 season. Until that point Childress drove himself. That season Earnhardt was the reigning Winston Cup champion, but his team was sold to a certain JD Stacy and Earnhardt decided he didn’t want to work for that man. (A good career move on Dale’s part.) So Childress retired from driving and put Earnhardt in the car. The relationship was supposed to be long term, but prior to 1982 Earnhardt and Childress parted company and Dale went to drive Fords for Bud Moore.
To replace Dale, Childress picked Ricky Rudd. At that point Rudd was an aggressive young driver with a reputation, ironically enough in light of the last Richmond race, much like that of Kevin Harvick today. Richard and Ricky failed to win any races though they came close with two second place finishes. Occasionally it wasn’t just other drivers who got angry with Rudd’s aggressive moves. His own crew chief was often angry with Rudd for tearing up equipment because of poor judgment. The team was in disarray much of the year.
In 1983 Rudd and Childress stayed together and Ricky won two races. In 1984 Dale Earnhardt returned to RCR where he was destined to stay until his untimely death last year.
RCR’s struggles in 1992 were even more baffling. In 1990 and 1991 Earnhardt won the Winston Cup championships and a total of 13 races. After the jinxed season of 1992 Dale went on to win the championship in 1993 and 1994 along with ten races.
But for most of the 1992 Earnhardt couldn’t get out of his own way. The 3 team was constantly blowing engines. The only race Earnhardt won that year was the World 600. (And a lot of people feel NASCAR gave Earnhardt that win, not calling him for speeding on pit road to the great irritation of Ernie Irvan and Kyle Petty.) Dale finished 12th in the points standings that year. 1992 was the only season Earnhardt finished outside the top 10 in points while driving for Childress, and one of only two times during his entire career in Winston Cup he wasn’t a top ten points finisher.
And that year everyone was wondering what’s wrong with Earnhardt and RCR? Some folks claimed Earnhardt was over the hill. Others said the Chevrolets were at so much of a disadvantage even the old Intimidator couldn’t keep up. (The Fords were very strong that year with the late Alan Kulwicki, Bill Elliott and the late Davey Allison finishing 1-2-3 in the standings.) But my favorite explanation, which some people actually bought at the time was changes in climatic conditions caused by the eruption of a volcano in the South Pacific that year caused global cooling and cooler air favored the Fords.
So what was wrong with Earnhardt in 1992? Not much based on the those two championships he won in 1993 and 1994.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, Kevin Harvick hit his sophomore slump just in time for the ten year jinx at RCR. And what of that so called “sophomore slump”? Is it real? Logically there’s no reason that a driver with more experience should fare more poorly than in his rookie season.
But there could be something to the myth, particularly in this case. In modern day Winston Cup racing, a rookie comes into the sport having to learn to handle a powerful Winston Cup car, a pretty tough task. But if that driver achieves some measure of success during his rookie season he’s got another challenge to face, living the life of a famous Winston Cup driver.
The money is great, but there’s increasing demands on that driver’s time. Sponsors are pulling him in one direction, hundreds of thousands of fans want a moment of his time, his business manager needs to talk about the latest endorsement deals and commercials, and of course you have us jackals in the media clamoring for attention. It can be pretty overwhelming. Some drivers handle it well. Some fail to do so as evidenced by Tony Stewart’s nuclear meltdown at Charlotte in 2000.
In Harvick’s case he’s now appearing in commercials. He’s started his own truck series team and is trying to find a sponsor. (And doubtless ink a diecast deal.) He’s agreed to run a handful of Busch series races. He’s been married just over a year. That’s a lot of changes and responsibility for any young man. One has to wonder if maybe he’s spending too much time on the business end of his career, and not enough time at the shop getting on the same page as the guys who build his cars.
Also in Harvick’s case, he came into the series a relative unknown, but his hard charging style got him into feuds with several other drivers, none of whom are going to cut him much slack anymore. Truth be told, even if he drove as cleanly as Mark Martin established Winston Cup stars stop liking the new kid on the block pretty quickly when he starts beating them regularly. Whatever you want to say about Harvick, he’s certainly not an unknown quantity anymore.
So maybe the fortunes of the 29 team and its driver will turn around this week. Or perhaps it will be next week. It might be late this year, or it could even be in 2003. But both the team and driver have talent, and I for one am not about to write them off quite yet.