Sprint Cup champ Kevin Harvick: “I’m as comfortable as I’ve ever been”

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Last fall, Kevin Harvick’s 14-year quest to become a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion finally ended, and in spectacular fashion – a win at Phoenix to make the Championship Race at Homestead, and then another win on the 1.5-mile South Florida oval to capture the title.

In an epic conclusion to his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing, Harvick endured the highest amount of pressure and succeeded with the highest stakes on the line.

So, naturally, he’s entering his title defense in 2015 with a heavy burden now off of his shoulders. The anxiety of jumping from an established program at Richard Childress Racing to a made-from-scratch program at SHR is long gone. And so too is the empty feeling of unfulfilled expectations.

“There’s way less pressure,” the champ said during today’s NASCAR Media Tour activities in Charlotte. “Coming into this situation last year, I was pretty nervous. It may not have shone through but there’s so many questions in your head about a very comfortable situation. But I didn’t want to be comfortable. I wanted to experience what we experienced last year. Sometimes, you have to make some bold and hard decisions in order to make things like this happen.”

“I’m as comfortable as I’ve ever been [now]. We’re way better prepared than we were going into the season last year…For me, I feel as comfortable as I ever have just for the fact that you don’t have those expectations you haven’t lived up to. You lived up to them, you know how to do that, and you’re gonna continue to try to take that to the next level – to prepare yourself from a physical standpoint, from a mental standpoint, from a team standpoint and just get better.

“Sometimes, it’s not gonna be good enough. You have to have it all go your way. But if you’re winning and you’re putting all the effort in that you need to put in, you’re gonna be in good shape.”

Not everything went Harvick’s way in 2014. Multiple pit road gaffes and mechanical issues tripped up what many believed was the fastest team in the garage during the regular season.

But through those trying times, the mentality of winning was never sacrificed for the sake of simply stringing together consistent results to feel better again. In the Chase, that win-or-bust mentality proved essential as Harvick posted three wins in the final six races (including those aforementioned Phoenix and Homestead triumphs).

There’s no way Harvick, crew chief Rodney Childers, and the No. 4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s team are changing that mindset now.

“I don’t think we ever really tried to revert to the consistency part of it [in 2014],” Harvick said. “We were racing for wins right up through Homestead, where obviously we won the race. The last three weeks, I think it was two wins and a second at Texas. That was the mentality that got us there, and that’s what we needed to continue to do.

“That’s really the only way to control your own destiny. If you have cars that are capable of doing that and teams and everything around you that have gotten to that point by winning, there’s really no reason to try and change your strategy.”

In addition to having a clear plan of attack, there’s also a clear motivation for Harvick, Childers, and the team as well: Avoiding a massive letdown in their second season together.

Nobody wants to let their guard down. Now that they’re at the top, they want to stay there and have a chance to create a dynasty similar to Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team during their five-year title stretch from 2006-2010.

Time will tell if they’ll be successful. But as Childers noted, once you get to winning regularly, it’s hard to imagine another outcome.

“You sit on one pole, you want win another pole. You win a race, you wanna win another race. You win a championship, you wanna win another one pretty bad,” Childers said. “Everybody’s gotten to taste what [winning a championship] feels like, and in all honesty, I feel like that’s why the 48 [team] was able to do what they did.

“Once you get on that high of winning a championship and winning races, it’s hard to knock yourself off of it, and all you think about is the race cars and going and repeating and doing the things you need to do.”

INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500