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Kevin Harvick: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. And does Richard Childress have the key?

  Kevin Harvick (L) and team owner Richard Childress: will they sign a new contract this season for 2011...or go their separate ways? And when will they make that decision? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Kevin Harvick. What next?
   It's been exactly three years since his last tour win, and as the 2010 Daytona 500 approaches, his future with car owner Richard Childress seems more up in the air than ever.
   Until Harvick says yea or nay to Childress, in this their contract renewal season, the uncertainty may hang over the entire RCR operation.
   After all Childress has to keep an eye and ear open for someone to fill Harvick's ride if the Kernersville, N.C., racer does decide to leave.
   And Childress has to ensure that that ride – Gil Martin is the current crew chief – is competitive enough that he can attract another good driver.
   Of course the Childress operation, like most that weren't aligned with Rick Hendrick, struggled in 2009. Teammates Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Casey Mears also went winless, and when Jack Daniel's declined to renew its sponsorship, Childress had to cut his four-team line-up back to three teams, and Mears was the odd-man-out.
   Just how good a driver is Harvick, after nine seasons on the tour, with 11 wins and five poles? He just turned 34, with a lot of good years ahead. But he hasn't been much of a player lately, though he did make a good bid of it at Homestead in the November finale.
   Can Harvick crank up those competitive fires, while he debates his future? Can he keep those contract talks from getting in the way?
   "I think so," Harvick says. "I've been there before. The best year we had was a contract year."
   That was 2006, a five-win season for Harvick and Childress, despite overtures from Toyota to Harvick over that summer.
   "And we had a chance to win the championship," Harvick said. "And we won the Nationwide championship. So that was a pretty good season.
   "It will all just happen the way it's meant to happen (this season). I just want to be the driver. I don't want to get into any big political war with anybody. Everyone will do their thing behind the scenes."

  Kevin Harvick: Does he have any answers yet, in the back of his mind? Or is he simply waiting to see how the early season goes? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Last summer was pretty testy – Harvick himself never confirmed anything, but Toyota teams say that after General Motors pulled the plug on Harvick's own team operation (Trucks and Nationwide), he was miffed enough to make a pitch to Toyota to move to that camp. Toyota however reportedly turned him down.
   At one point Harvick seemed almost destined to be leaving the Childress camp at the end of last season...but Childress put his foot down and firmly insisted that Harvick hang in for the last year – 2010 – of his contract. And with Shell sponsorship, one of the most highly prized sponsorships in NASCAR, on the line, it was important to keep Harvick in the fold.
   What happens next to Harvick and/or Shell is uncertain.


   2007 Redux: Harvick makes a bid to the outside of Mark Martin in the final turn of the last lap (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Looking at the big picture, though,  Harvick himself
   "I feel like the ownership has laid the foundation for whatever I want to do, when I'm  all done," Harvick says. "It's all sitting there, it all functions, it all functions on a day-to-day basis.
   "Over the past seven years we've been able to lay all that out. And it's all paid for. So you don't have that burden.
   "So if that's the road I want to go down when I'm through driving, it's there.
   "And it's been great from the political side, in understanding how the sport works, and relating things to Richard. And having a team like that gives you a pretty strong arm in the sport, in listening to things and having an opinion on how things work."
   While Harvick himself doesn't seem that interested in actually driving the Cup tour in his own equipment, "I feel like the team is at a point where it could go right to Cup. We've got the ability to fabricate cars. We could put cars on the track, if sponsorship were there.
    "I just don't want to drive it."
    However Harvick's business acumen in this side venture has been impressive, and of all the Cup drivers out there today he is perhaps uniquely qualified to run a Cup team at a high level.
   "I think it would be pretty easy, with everything we've put into place," Harvick says. "The hard thing is the sponsorship and the manufacturer."

  And Harvick makes it pay off, with the biggest win of his career (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Chevrolet execs were key in getting Harvick in the car that the late Dale Earnhardt drove.
   Nevertheless, Harvick was clearly not pleased with GM's decision last summer to cut back. And how that plays into his thinking is uncertain.
   What Harvick is primarily focused on right now, though, is clear – he wants more speed. "Faster cars," he says would be the one thing the Childress operation really needs.
   Faster where? "Faster through the corner," Harvick says with a laugh.
   Harvick, though, knows that part of the magic Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have had isn't necessarily so much in pure speed: "You have to look at the days when they don't run good," Harvick says. "Those are the days when you understand how good they are – because they can be running 30th, and yet the next thing you know....
   "How many times have you seen them make up two laps and all of a sudden they're in contention to win? Like Atlanta last year – they were two laps down and came to almost win the race.
    "They get their car better throughout the day...and that's something a lot of the rest of us don't do well.
   "When we're going to have a bad day, we have a bad day.
   "But they can take a bad day and turn it into a top-five. They can make something out of their car. They are just a good match for each other, and drive each other – from a physical standpoint and a mental standpoint. They really know what makes each other click."
   It was at Texas last fall, after Johnson's third-lap crash, that the brilliance of Knaus so clearly seen. Yes, the team spent an hour-plus on completely rebuilding that car, and they only picked up nine points for that effort. But it was an awe-inspiring performance, in the eyes of their rivals.
   Will late March-early April this season again be a defining mark of the early tour? Last season that's when Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Johnson all launched their charge, at Martinsville, Phoenix and Texas.
   "It will be different this year," Harvick insists, "because we're all getting that new rear spoiler thrown on us.
   "You'll see some guys who are being early and some guys who are ahead. There will be some twists."  
   And Harvick hopes he's part of the new deal.
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  Everybody wants answers from Kevin Harvick...but he insists he'll do his talking behind closed doors (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)





Weren't we all going through this before with Harvick on the last contract renew "issue" with RCR?

I guess it's all about winning performance with Shell/Pennzoil and Toyota is in the catbird seat. Hmmm, Harvick to JGR as the fourth driver with Shell/Pennzoil?

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