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.”