There are plenty of layers to peel back with Kevin Harvick’s “Happy” nickname. His other handle, “The Closer,” is straightforward, given his tendency to finish strong. Other proposed monikers — “The Cactus King” and “El Toro” — were thankfully short-lived whims.
“Happy” has had a longer run, but the alliterative nickname’s origin story is blurred — a label from his short-tracking days early in his career perhaps, or a nod to the bright, smiley-face pit sign he’s had for the bulk of his NASCAR Cup Series tenure. Harvick’s personal website offers this explanation: “Along the way, he gained a reputation for being aggressive on the track, but off the track his affable attitude and ever-present smile earned him the nickname ‘Happy.’ ”
The other interpretation leans hard on sarcasm, much in the way that former driver DeWayne Louis Lund — a giant who tipped in at 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds — always went by “Tiny.”
Harvick’s list of not-happy-at-all-with-you moments added another chapter Saturday night in a late-race and post-race clash at Bristol Motor Speedway with defending Cup Series champ Chase Elliott, who was on the other end of a steely scowl instead of the aforementioned ever-present smile. The longtime driver of Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 4 Ford selected the most fitting entrance song for Bristol’s special style of driver introductions. The vibe from “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty carried through all 500 laps — indicative both of his desire to win in a season where victories have been hard to come by, and his unyielding stance in the post-race skirmish.
Whether their at-times heated discussion set the rules of engagement for the two title contenders the rest of the way, seven races remain on the 2021 schedule to tell that tale. But what Saturday night did, in effect, was re-establish Harvick’s reputation as a driver not to be crossed.
The archive of Harvick vs. fill-in-the-blank is the stuff that’s launched YouTube compilations. Versus Greg Biffle, by the scruff of his driver’s suit at Bristol in 2002. Versus Ricky Rudd at Richmond in 2003, telling one of the grittiest cusses to ever wheel a stock car, “If he’s gonna take a cheap shot, he’s gonna get one back, I promise you that.” Versus Juan Pablo Montoya with on-track shoves after a Turn 1 shunt at Watkins Glen in 2007. Versus Joey Logano (Pocono 2010), vs. Kyle Busch (Darlington 2011), vs. Ty Dillon (Martinsville 2013), vs. Jimmie Johnson (Chicagoland 2015). That’s skipping a few, even, but you get the idea.
Having a list of rivals as long as your arm isn’t necessarily a negative. As Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press pointed out in an astute series of tweets in the Saturday night aftermath, Harvick has largely come out ahead (or at least broken even) in those confrontations. Each one has reinforced the same notion, that maybe it’s best not to test out the snake to see if it’s venomous.
For the bulk of his career, Harvick has run neck and neck with the rambunctious Tony Stewart as the Cup Series’ most prolific needler and winner of head games. Since Stewart — now Harvick’s car owner — retired from the driving side of his NASCAR career in 2016, the cheese now stands alone.
Elliott moved from the on-deck circle into Harvick’s batter’s box at Bristol, capping off a weekend of short-track sparks in an electric playoff atmosphere. Still in the early stages of his career, Elliott has his own short but prominent versus list, having matched wits with Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch as recent Cup Series foes.
Saturday night, Elliott suggested he had reached a tipping point after an on-track scrape near the end left him fighting a flat tire, knocking him from victory contention. After their pit-road face-off, he said Harvick’s veteran status meant little: “I don‘t care who he is or how long he‘s been doing it. I‘m going to stand up for myself and my team and we‘ll go on down the road.”
Shades of Tom Petty’s anthem all over again, and the balance of the season provides a looming test for which driver will truly be happy in the end.
History suggests there’s no way Harvick buckles. Elliott has taken his own defiant stand. Seven races left to watch it play out.