Kevin Harvick leaves mark as behind-the-scenes mentor for ‘my kids’ in NASCAR
The longtime persona of Kevin Harvick was a NASCAR champion who made a career of making his opponents miserable.
There are endless examples of destabilization by the former high school wrestler from Bakersfield who devilishly played withering mind games during title battles, gleefully shoved the competition into brawls and ruthlessly put himself and his team first at all costs.
But as the 47-year-old nicknamed “Happy” (a moniker with sarcastic origins) enters his final season in the Cup Series, the next generation of drivers is happy to destroy the façade of Harvick as a selfish superstar.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver they know has been a fount of good advice and emotional support. A veteran who proactively has offered a hand even when many were unaware they needed it. An available and wizened ear to bend on virtually any topic – and with virtually any driver, regardless of their history with the mercurial star.
Though Chase Elliott and Harvick engaged in one of NASCAR’s most memorable recent feuds in 2021, the Hendrick Motorsports driver said he and Harvick still “have a good relationship” that dates back nearly a decade. When Elliott was entering his rookie Xfinity Series season with JR Motorsports in 2014, it was Harvick (who was running his first part-time year with JRM) who became his biggest sounding board.
“Kevin was really the veteran there in the building that was willing to help me and willing to allow me to ask questions, and I asked a ton of questions,” Elliott told NBC Sports. “We talked quite a lot there early on, and I’m grateful for that. It’s not often you have a veteran guy who is willing to lend a hand to a young racer who really had very little experience, especially coming to a lot of these tracks for the first time. And he recognized that and was willing to help. So I’ve always had a lot of respect for him in many regards. Obviously, he’s a very good driver, but just that period of time and him being willing to help me, I’ll always really appreciate that. Those are important moments in a young driver’s career.”
Bubba Wallace recalls getting an unsolicited dinner invitation from Harvick just as he was making his first Cup starts several years ago. Wallace shared the meal with Harvick and his wife, DeLana, and “just was able to chat and talk about life.
“I’ll always remember that moment of him just wanting to help,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “Just knowing that ‘Happy’ has an actual nice side to him was pretty cool to see, and from the moments that we’ve had our run-ins on track, we still race each other with respect and treat each other with respect. So I’ll always remember that moment.”
Harvick wants to leave that impression but would prefer “to keep it as private as possible because I don’t want them to ever think it’s so that I can talk to (the media) about it.” It’s notable that the details of these meetings have emerged years later (and only by prompting the younger set).
“When they speak about it, I’m OK with it, but I just have a real interest in trying to share the things that I’ve been able to experience and make mistakes,” Harvick said. “There’s so few guys that drive these cars, that you can really have more conversations with them and just reach out. Some of them you reach out and don’t really hear much from them. Some of them you reach out to and wind up at dinner with you or at your house having dinner.
“They need to know that you’re there. Some of them can’t believe that you reached out, because they’re trying to figure out why you reached out to them. Or understand why you’re taking an interest in things that they’re doing. And really, it’s just trying to set an example, because in the generation before me, those guys all communicated and helped each other and knew each other and I think it’s important for our group of drivers. We’ve kind of gotten away from that. Some of that may be my fault for not trying to tie that together a little bit better, but we’ve worked hard on that over the last year and a half with all the safety stuff and things that we’ve had going on and trying to have everybody sit down a little bit more.”
Harvick left the first iteration of the Drivers Council five years ago after growing frustrated with its lack of impact. But with the safety issues raised by the Next Gen debut last year, he re-emerged as an outspoken force who was adamant about advocating for his younger peers. Before the 2022 season finale at Phoenix, the father of two explained why he had been leading more publicly.
“I want to keep my colleagues informed and educated, and I’m good with doing that,” he said. “It’s just an interesting time, and something that worked out that way. I feel like most of (the younger drivers) are my kids. I don’t feel obligated, but I think the timing of it is just what it is. You do the things you think will help everybody. And try to do the right thing and balance that with what’s right for the sport.”
After being thrust into a virtually untenable situation in filling the ride vacated by the death of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, Harvick got sideways with NASCAR and other stars often in his early years. He was parked for a Cup race after several incidents in a 2002 truck race at Martinsville Speedway (where he also had been in a spat with Bobby Hamilton in 2001).
But Harvick managed to stick around through the guidance of some NASCAR veterans (along with late PR rep Jim Hunter). He credits Hamilton, Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett as “guys that reached out when I was in trouble and always give you advice.” Later in his career, it became teammate Tony Stewart, who would “compare notes” on his past missteps and how he handled them.
In guiding his son Keelan’s burgeoning career, Harvick has seen how young stars need “somebody outside of their circle that they can trust and ask questions to and really talk to about certain situations and know that it’s not going to go anywhere but between the two of you.
“I guess being a father has given (me) some sort of idea of what is happening with some of the kids and what they’re up against and trying to understand that. So I think as you try to understand the kids – because they are kids, and they are young – there are so many sharks in the water in this particular sport that a lot of them just don’t understand how to manage their time and all the things that are asked of them. You can’t say yes to everything at this particular level, but they’ll try for a while until they’re in trouble from their job perspective because they’re not focused on the racing side of it. But really the safety stuff brought all this into play as far as being closer to understanding who all the competitors are and the drivers.”
The bridges have gotten firmer with some younger but established drivers, too. Joey Logano’s history with Harvick is well-documented, but the two-time Cup champion said they get along really well now.
“Yeah, we didn’t take off on the best note -- some of my own doings, some of maybe his doings -- we’ve had the conversations, and honestly, now I probably have a better relationship with Kevin than I do 90% of the drivers out there,” Logano told NBC Sports. “I think we can relate on a lot of different levels.
“I think one of my favorite moments for Kevin is we were flying back from Vegas (after a race) last year. We were just BS-ing and back and forth. And we were talking about kids and the mistakes that we made and how they all live on YouTube. A lot of those videos, we’re laughing about it, which is great we can laugh about it. You know that that part’s pretty cool. Now that we have a friendship, it’s kind of funny because, gosh, if you said to me 10 years ago that I would get along Kevin Harvick, I’d say you’re nuts. No way.
“But I think now like we both have changed so much that we really get along well.”
NBC Sports asked several Cup drivers for their best memories and stories of Harvick. Here’s what many said:
COREY LaJOIE: While racing in the K&N Series as a teenager, the Spire Motorsports driver was assembling a car for a 2010 race at Iowa Speedway with his father, Randy, who had DeLana Harvick as a PR rep while racing in NASCAR more than 20 years ago. “It was a Penske car. We couldn’t find parts. We couldn’t find pieces. I was having a hard time getting this car together for the race. Dad called DeLana and asked, ‘Hey, my son’s having a hard time building his car. He’s not going to get ready for the race. Next thing I know, my dad (is on) the intercom at the shop. ‘Hey, Corey got a call on. Pick it up.’ ‘Hey, Corey, I hear you’re having a hard time getting this car together.’ ‘Like, yes. Who is this? Santa Claus? Who is this?’ ‘It’s (Kevin) Harvick. ‘Well, I’ve got a machine shop and I got a couple of guys that are familiar with that car. If you want to just bring it up here to KHI we’ll get that thing together.’ And I was like, ‘Sweet.’ I couldn’t get that thing loaded up fast enough. Booked it up to Kernersville and dropped it off.
“He put Bruce Cook Jr. and four or five guys on this car. They made suspension pieces and spindles and this and that. They got the car ready to go. Because they had way more expertise at it than I did. And we showed up, and we (finished fourth). So Harvick went out on a limb and helped a brother out and pretty much got my car together. He put his people on it and that’s just how Harvick gives me (help) behind the scenes. He does a lot for people that you wouldn’t know.”
CHASE BRISCOE: A Cup teammate at SHR for the past two seasons, Briscoe introduced himself to Harvick for the first time before his Xfinity debut for Roush Fenway Racing in 2018 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “He was driving the 98 car kind of part-time. I was going to run the 98 car for Stewart-Haas later that year, a couple of races. And I remember going over to Kevin at Atlanta, he had no idea who I was, and I just started asking him questions. And really from that day on, we’ve had a really good friendship and he’s just been such a mentor to me on and off the racetrack. Whether it’s on the racetrack, asking him for advice of what to do and off the racetrack asking him for advice in business or things like that.
“Kevin’s kind of just always been there for me. He’s always kind of had my back through everything. He’s always believed in me. Just being teammates with a guy that’s going to be a Hall of Famer has been huge for me to kind of see how he prepares for races, just how he even debriefs after the races. His leadership role in our company. It’s been really big for me just to be able to kind of see that behind the scenes. I know I’m going to miss Kevin when he’s gone for sure, just because he’s been such a huge asset in my career and just a guy that can I always call or text for anything. I definitely just can’t think of a better teammate to have than him.”
RYAN PREECE: Harvick’s newest Cup teammate said their friendship started after Harvick and his management company posted a weekly contingency bonus in 2018 at Stafford Motor Speedway, Preece’s local track. “I was racing those few Xfinity races and still racing pretty much full-time at the time at (Stafford). So he sponsored the program, I said thank you to him and happened to win Bristol not too long after that. He was the first one to come up to me and shake my hand. It’s little moments like that that are things that people like him do, specifically Kevin, that maybe they don’t realize the impact that they really have on a guy like me or some racers up in the Connecticut area. Through the past four years of getting to know Kevin and DeLana and Keelan and Piper, they’ve been great to my wife and I. He’s been somebody that, if I necessarily don’t know I should be doing something, he’ll shoot me a note and say, ‘Hey, I think you should you should do this,’ or, he helps you. He doesn’t necessarily give you the answer to success, but he helps you achieve it and find ways to do it.”
WILLIAM BYRON: “The thing that stands out with Kevin is my rookie year. A lot’s happening fast, and my second race in my career after the Daytona 500 (at Atlanta), I got lapped by him a few times that that day. And then ended up sitting down with him a couple of weeks later and having breakfast and just kind of picking his brain on racing stuff, career stuff, and just getting a better idea of kind of a direction. It really helped me throughout my rookie year, and just my career in general. Thankful for him to take that time and help a younger guy like me. He’s always followed up and ask questions, and it’s just been good to have that relationship. We’ve got a mutual friend through Max Papis. Max knows Kevin really well (and) kept urging me to kind of get together with Kevin and meet with him and ask questions. So yeah, that’s how we kind of got together. Honestly, I didn’t expect much. I was like, ‘Man, this guy’s super successful in the Cup series right now he’s winning seven to 10 races a year, probably doesn’t want to share a lot with me.’ So I wouldn’t really expect it if I were in his shoes, but he did. That’s what stood out. He didn’t mind being open and communicating.”
TY DILLON: Though Harvick’s criticism of the Dillon brothers in a 2013 truck race at Martinsville made headlines, he grew close to them while racing for their grandfather, Richard Childress. “Kevin has had such an impact on my life, my family’s, the race team from the time he stepped in for Dale and immediately brought victory back to the company and really helped RCR get through a time that was really tough. He was the cornerstone of the race team as I was growing up. So a lot of times, he was there to talk to. I remember my first truck win at Atlanta (on Aug. 31, 2012), he called me that morning. It was like 8 or 9 in the morning, and he really walked me through the speedway at that time because he was very dominant at the racetrack on that surface. The things he told me I applied and went out and beat Kyle Busch (and) some of the top guys, and I’ll never forget that Kevin’s always been there for good advice.
“We’ve obviously had our moments later on in the truck series and, but also after the Martinsville situation, it wasn’t within a year later where we had talked about it and moved on. And you know, we have a great relationship now. He’s been very helpful and impactful to my career. Almost every year of my career. He’s been somebody that’s worth talking to and always offers the best advice, and I appreciate what not only what he’s done for me, but what he’s done for the sport and done for my family’s race team at RCR.”
AJ ALLMENDINGER: “There’s a couple of memories that stand out on Kevin. So before I got to NASCAR -- my favorite clip of all time, I watched it live -- was him standing on the pit wall at Bristol, just waiting for Greg Biffle to finish the race, so he could just go spider monkey on his ass once the race got over. Which he did, which was awesome.
“The other thing is always being able to call him just with a question or anything that I had needed advice on. I could call him, and he’d never lie, or he made time for it. I always appreciated that. And then you just knew on the racetrack -- and it’s probably gonna be worse this year since it’d be his last year – he’s aggressive. He don’t give a damn about you on the racetrack. And he makes sure he lets you knows that.
“(The advice) was always asking him about driving certain racetracks and how he went about it. You always knew that, Obviously, the race car was involved in that as well of how his car handled. Things like that. But to be quite honest, I asked him about what he felt like was right or wrong (for Allmendinger in 2023 when he returned to Cup full time after four years). So I asked him about what he thought the right course of direction was for me to have what I wanted to do in my life. What would be said, what wouldn’t be said about it and things like that. As tough is he is on the racetrack, you can call him and get advice, or you can ask him at the racetrack about certain things and, and he’s just as nice off the racetrack about that stuff. It meant a lot more to me than it probably really did to him taking the time out of his day to do that. That’s the type of person he is.”
ROSS CHASTAIN: Harvick was critical of Chastain after they collided while racing for the lead in an Xfinity race in 2018 at Darlington Raceway, but the Trackhouse Racing driver jokingly recalls being on the other side long before that. “I have to back up to before my career in NASCAR, I was at his first Cup win in Atlanta. Really. to be honest, I was rooting for the 24 car (of Jeff Gordon). So I was bummed. We were in a suite, and the entire group I was with was cheering when Kevin won. I was the only one that was mad. I was convinced that the 24 won. He did not.
“So that’s a cool memory to have. But now once I got into the sport, my first time racing a competitive funded car was Darlington in 2018 with Chip Ganassi Racing in their 42 Xfinity car and race for the win with Kevin and Brad (Keselowski). And to be racing that that time with two champions of our sport, it was under caution, I was looking in my mirror at one of them at one point and looking at Kevin in front of me. So that was really an awesome experience. Only the both of us forced the issue off Turn 2, three wide under a lapped car, got together and hit the wall. Neither one of us had a chance to win.
“So as much as I’ve looked up to him in my career, I can honestly say that I’ve never been more happy for a guy to be wrong based on what he said after that race. It has worked out pretty well for us. So he’s a hero of mine, and I’m just happy I’ve gotten to race with him. He’s helped me actually a lot. I’ve talked to him at times for advice. He’s helped me more than anybody even knows.”
Dustin Long contributed to this story