Harvick the leading man, but we've seen this movie before


FONTANA, CA - FEBRUARY 19: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet, looks on from pit road during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway on February 19, 2010 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Kevin Harvick is quite the hot topic in NASCAR these days. Not only is the former Daytona 500 champion in the final year of his contract with Richard Childress Racing, he has finished no worse than seventh in the first three races, and two of those, the season-opening Daytona 500 and the Sprint Cup circuit's second race in Fontana, California, he could have and should have won.

What a far cry from 2009, when Harvick became so frustrated with the lack of performance of his #29 Chevrolet and the RCR organization as a whole that he all but told Marty Smith he would be leaving the team in a much-publicized ESPN interview last fall.

Harvick's hot start has him on top of the NASCAR world, for now at least, as he leads the Sprint Cup standings. It is the third time Harvick has topped the standings, but the first time he has done so for more than one week. He held the top spot after his win in the 2007 season-opener at Daytona, of course, and before that after a win at Loudon in September in 2006.

It was that 2006 season in which Harvick found himself in a similar situation to the one he is now. In the final year of his contract and fresh off a tough season. He had won a race, at Bristol, during the 2005 season but otherwise was an afterthought, missing the Chase for the second-straight season and indicating late in the year, much like last year, that not even a strong upswing in performance would be enough to keep him in Childress's camp.

The rumor mill churned, with Harvick supposedly headed anywhere in 2007 from Roush Racing as Mark Martin's replacement to Team Red Bull as the Toyota upstart tried to launch its program.

Of course, Harvick ultimately remained in the #29 Chevrolet he had driven since being thrust into the limelight as Dale Earnhardt's untimely successor. A strong stretch during the late spring, including a win at Phoenix International Raceway and a dominant performance in Richmond in a race Harvick for all intents and purposes should have won, indeed was enough to get Harvick to ink a four-year extension.

After signing the deal, Harvick won four more races and came within a blown engine at Dover in September of being the series champion. He also ran full-time that year in what was then the NASCAR Busch Series for Childress and his own Kevin Harvick Incorporated team, winning nine races and trouncing the field en route to his second title in the second-tier circuit.

Many, including the writer of this story, predicted big things for Harvick in 2007, and he seemed poised to answer the expectations after he nipped Mark Martin to win the Daytona 500 exactly six years to the day that Earnhardt's death vacated the seat Harvick has become synonymous with.

Alas, it has not panned out. At all. Harvick has not won - aside from two wins in the pre-season Budweiser Shootout and a triumph in the 2007 All-Star Challenge, none of which count in the official record book - since the 2007 Daytona 500, and a solid 2008 campaign was sandwiched between seasons that could charitably be described as short of what the team hoped for.

Thus, here we are. The rumor mill churns once more, with Harvick's good friend Tony Stewart seemingly the front-runner to land his services should Harvick choose to part from RCR. Joe Gibbs Racing could be another player, though the long-time Chevy stalwart would probably appear as out of place in a Toyota as Stewart did in 2008.

There is even talk, in spite of past comments to the contrary by Harvick and his wife, Delana, that the KHI organization that they co-own could move into the Cup Series with Harvick as the driver.

It appears that ultimately, Harvick will have to choose whether to remain loyal to Childress, who gave him his big break with a full-time Busch Series ride in 2000, and continue to ride the roller coaster of momentum that seems to have the organization on top one season and playing catch-up the next, or to go for a more stable situation elsewhere. Stewart-Haas Racing, with its Hendrick Motorsports ties, is perhaps the most attractive destination short of Hendrick itself, which has no open seat right now.

What Harvick will do is uncertain, as he has remained coy and even cold on the subject since the Smith interview aired. His hot start would seemingly make it difficult to leave, but as stated, the Childress team seems to ride the most substantial momentum wave of any of the top teams in NASCAR. Still, it would be hard to walk away while on top.

Unless Harvick has already made the decision, regardless of how this season plays out, to part ways with Childress at the conclusion of the season and makes the announcement this spring, it will likely be a good while, with no clear-cut outcome, before we know what car the man affectionately known as Happy will be driving when the green flag drops on the 2011 season.

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