Sprint Unlimited victory doesn’t change Kevin Harvick’s lame duck status

Chris Graythen

Kevin Harvick's victory in the Sprint Unlimited was a nice way to start the 2013 NASCAR season. However, it's far too soon to declare his final year with Richard Childress Racing a success.

Kevin Harvick heard all the naysayers, doubters and haters this offseason, who wondered whether he would be competitive in his final season with Richard Childress Racing.

After all, lame duck drivers rarely do well in NASCAR. Too many hurt feelings, bruised egos and questions about an uncertain future make it rough for a team to focus when a driver has already made it known that he has one foot out the door.

This is why Harvick, moments after winning Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited, was emphatic that him leaving for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 would have no effect on the current season.

"That's one for lame ducks," Harvick radioed to his crew in the midst of celebrating his third Unlimited win in five years. "It's just a matter of how many we can get."

Harvick was even more direct in the media center post-race, saying he didn't understand why his situation was all that big of a deal. He pointed to the season Matt Kenseth had a year ago, who even after announcing that he was leaving Roush Fenway Racing after 13 years to move over to Joe Gibbs Racing, still went on to win twice more and made the Chase with ease.

"I don't think it's been that big of a deal," Harvick said. "Kenseth did a great job with his situation. Our guys, they don't care. They just want to win.

"The atmosphere is great, honestly. Everybody is just working towards the same goal. That's winning the races. We have to be professional anyway, whether it's lame duck or not. You can call it whatever you want, we're going to have a helluva lot of fun racing, having a good time, doing our jobs."

However, the reality is more often than not a lame duck driver does struggle, and the way Kenseth ended his tenure with Roush is the exception and not the standard.

What Harvick may want to realize before shouting down his critics and pointing to his victory Saturday night as proof of his relevancy this year, is that that one win doesn't make a season. This is especially true if that win comes in an exhibition race featuring a select field that had been decimated by an earlier multi-car wreck.

A win in the Unlimited by no means guarantees that a driver is going to have a successful season.

Look no further than last year when Kyle Busch scored a memorable win that many thought would unleash the floodgates to an incredible season. Yet, Busch won just one points race in 2012 and didn't qualify for the Chase.

And even Harvick himself has been down this road previously.

In 2009, he won this very race in dramatic fashion with a last lap pass of Jamie McMurray. But that was all the winning Harvick did that season, as he ended the year 19th in the standings and publicly feuded with Childress about the direction the company was headed.

That was then and this is now, and perhaps Harvick is operating under a different set of circumstances that will allow him to thrive? He has after all shown over the years to be better when he's driving with a chip on his shoulder and motivated to quiet the skeptics.

"Pride also comes in there pretty good," he said. "It's fun to prove people wrong."

And RCR has a long history of being known as a gritty bunch, which always comes out swinging when its backs are against the wall. This is a team that has taken more body blows than most over the years, but because of its resolve it always finds a way to pick itself up off the mat.

"Anybody that thinks just because of what the situation is that anybody's going to lay down, they're sadly mistaken because we're going to try to win this championship," crew chief Gil Martin said.

"We're going to put forth the effort. I know Richard is doing it; everybody at the shop is doing it. We're going to do whatever it takes to win it. That's pretty well the bottom line."

Hurt feelings aside, there is little reason why the No. 29 team can't turn in a memorable season in its swan song with Harvick behind the wheel. From superspeedways to short tracks to road courses, this is a combination that has proven competitive on every kind of track that makes up the Cup schedule.

However, with not even an official lap in a points-paying race completed, it's too soon to claim Harvick's final season a success.

If he doesn't win a race the rest of the year his victory will be nothing more than a footnote in the record book and not the statement victory he claimed that it was.

For now, last night was merely the first chapter in a book that is still being written. Whether that book is about a lame duck driver failing or succeeding is still to be determined.

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