It seems like Silly Season in NASCAR—where speculation about drivers changing teams occurs—gets earlier every year.
But Friday's news out of Phoenix has set a new Silly Season standard: the rumor that Kevin Harvick will be leaving Richard Childress Racing after the 2013 season to drive for one of his best pals, Tony Stewart, at Stewart Haas Racing in 2014.
That's right, Harvick still has 38 more races on his current contract with RCR—two more races this season and the full 36-race slate in 2013—but already folks are focusing on something that may not potentially happen for another 15 more months!
The report of Harvick's pending departure from RCR came from ESPN. Naturally, both RCR and SHR officials, including Stewart, denied that there was anything to the report.
In fact, Stewart went so far as to joke with reporters—and how much do you want to bet that some of them actually bit at first—that he had signed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to drive for the team in 2014, even though Junior is contractually committed to Hendrick Motorsports through at least 2017 (h/t Autosport.com).
But once the laughter died down, apparently enough buzz had been created after Stewart spoke with the media that SHR felt it prudent to issue a statement.
“Stewart-Haas Racing’s driver lineup is all set for 2013, but if you’re talking about 2014 and if Kevin Harvick is available, that’s something the team would have to look at," SHR team spokesman Mike Arning said in a statement. "Any team in this garage would do the same.
“From the moment Stewart-Haas Racing was formed, becoming a four-car team is something it’s been striving for. They have the infrastructure to accommodate a fourth team, and if everything aligns properly, it’s something they’ll do. So, if a driver the caliber of Kevin Harvick is available, it’s something they would pursue.”
Harvick was non-committal on the report, telling ESPN, "I'm looking forward to finishing out this season on a strong note with RCR and continuing to build our program going into the 2013 season with the ultimate goal of winning a championship. Anything beyond that, once I know what my future plans are set, I'll let you know."
As the talk spread like wildfire through the Phoenix International Raceway garage, it certainly appeared to cause team owner Richard Childress angst.
“If you want to talk about that bull … what (you) need to do is have somebody from over there [SHR] to confirm it,” Childress said to several media outlets, including SportingNews.com. “Right now, he's [Harvick] driving for me in '13 and we’re still in '12, so I ain’t even going to talk about it to nobody.”
But if the rumors of Harvick joining forces with Stewart Haas prove true, it makes lots of sense for everyone.
Consider some of the key points:
1. After 12 seasons (13 if you include next season), an argument can be made that Harvick has stagnated at RCR. He seems to get just so far—much like this season in making the Chase—and then his forward progress stops.
A change of scenery could be the best thing for Harvick when it comes to achieving his long-held goal of a Sprint Cup championship. It's not much of a reach to say that maybe Harvick has gone as far as he'll ever go within RCR and that it's time for him to explore new pastures and venues.
If there's anything that gets a driver's motivation, confidence, drive and desire going again, it's a move to a new home, with new people and a whole different way of doing things.
Sure, Harvick leaving RCR would be a big loss for the organization, as he has been its defacto leader on the racetrack for more than a decade. But maybe the time has come for both sides to go different ways, wish each other well and then look forward to what may soon be in store with entirely different situations.
Harvick has amassed 18 wins in the Cup series, including the 2007 Daytona 500. He's made the Chase in six of the nine years of its existence, with career-best season finishes of third place in both 2010 and 2011. All of those numbers have been while driving for RCR.
But this season has not been a typical Harvick or RCR season. Only Harvick made the Chase out of the three-driver lineup (Jeff Burton and Paul Menard fell short), he hasn't won even one race this season, and he comes into Phoenix ranked 11th in the 12-driver Chase field; certainly not the way he hoped this year's playoffs would play out.
Still, Harvick has enjoyed great success over the years at PIR, so that winless skein could potentially come to an end on Sunday.
2. Ever since he was thrown into the role of replacing the late Dale Earnhardt after the former seven-time Cup champ was tragically killed in the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Harvick has done an outstanding job.
But one thing always seemed to hang over his head—and it wasn't necessarily fair to him, either. He never was or ever will be Earnhardt, yet the suddenness and the manner in which the latter died left his countless fans seeking a savior, a new hero, and that was a role that Harvick was cast into and inherited whether he wanted to or not.
Obviously, he had to take the opportunity when it was presented to him, but if he had it to do all over again, I'm willing to bet Harvick would have liked a more gradual transition into the sport and a ride, rather than trying to fill the shoes of the sport's biggest driver and the cockpit of one of its most iconic car numbers.
No one has ever been placed under the microscope of scrutiny in NASCAR when it came to replacing a driver than Harvick was. And yet, to his credit, he handled it with graciousness and aplomb. Somewhere, I bet The Intimidator is smiling at the job Harvick has done under the most trying of circumstances.
3. There's no denying that Harvick may be hearing footsteps from Childress' grandsons, Austin and Ty Dillon. For the last few years, speculation has grown that the Dillon boys were being groomed by their grandfather to take over the company business on the race track.
The elder Austin won the Camping World Truck Series championship last season, is a rookie and could potentially win the Nationwide Series title next week, and it's very likely that his time to move full-time to the Sprint Cup series will be at hand in 2014. Sure, Harvick and Dillon could co-exist—and if the report proves to be false, that will likely be the case.
But if the rumors of Dillon's ascension in 2014 are indeed true, and if the company remains at three teams, someone is obviously going to be the odd man out at RCR, either Harvick, fellow veteran Burton or Menard. And if Ty Dillon reaches the Sprint Cup level by 2015, one more of the current RCR trio of drivers may be out, as well.
On the flip side, if the rumor does become truth and SHR grows to a four-team operation in 2014, it would feature Stewart, Harvick, Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman.
But therein lies a possible rub. Isn't Newman signed only through 2013? What happens if SHR can't generate enough sponsorship to have a fourth team in 2014? Guess who becomes the likely odd man out—or the one who has to make room for Harvick?
Yep, Newman. So you better believe he'll be watching how things progress very closely over the coming months.
4. One other thing about Austin Dillon that needs to be considered is the likelihood in 2014 of his driving the fabled black No. 3 Chevrolet made famous by Earnhardt. As if the pressure of having Dillon on the team wouldn't be hard enough, does Harvick really want to compete head-to-head, his No. 29 against one of the sport's most fabled numbers—and one that hasn't been used in the Cup series since Earnhardt's death?
And let's not forget that Dillon rode the No. 3 to the Trucks championship last season (he's also driving the No. 3 this season in the Nationwide Series). Can you imagine what would happen if Dillon does indeed win this year's Nationwide championship in the No. 3? It would likely clinch any decision to bring back the No. 3 in the Cup series.
While driving the No. 3 may not necessarily be his birthright, Dillon's grandfather holds the number and has been waiting for the right time to put it back into view and circulation in the Cup series. Had Childress wanted to do it sooner, he could have done it with Harvick.
In an interview with SportingNews.com, Childress all but confirmed Friday that the No. 3 is definitely in RCR's plans.
“There is consideration that someday we may end up running a 3 in Cup with [Austin Dillon],” Childress said. “It’s not going to be popular with everybody, but so many of the fans, after seeing it on this car [Dillon is slated to drive the No. 33 car when he makes his Daytona 500 debut next February], love it and ask for it back.
“It reminds them of seeing Dale. It brings back the memories of Dale.”
Add all of those things together and it would not be a complete surprise if Friday's reports about Harvick's rumored jump to Stewart Haas Racing in 2014 are ultimately borne out.
Harvick has had a great ride at RCR, much like the two Dillon boys will ultimately have a great tenure driving for their grandfather. Who knows, he may even be able to finally put it all together and win the Cup crown next season in what potentially could be his last season at RCR.
That would be a great way to end one era and begin another—for Harvick, the Dillons and RCR.
But even if he doesn't with next year's championship, a change of address and scenery may very well be the thing that Harvick needs—and ultimately leads him to his long-held goal.