News & Media

Sadler's Nationwide title run represents next step for KHI

July 13, 2011, David Caraviello,

Three weeks ago, Kevin Harvick Inc. fielded Max Papis in a No. 33 car for the Nationwide Series race at Road America with the express goal of trying to win the event. The organization also fielded the No. 2 car of Elliott Sadler, who went to the Wisconsin road course with the intention of recording a top-five finish to continue his quest for the circuit championship.

He did just that, finishing fourth, and then reclaimed the Nationwide points lead through his fifth-place result Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway. They were small steps toward Sadler's ultimate goal of winning the Nationwide title, and steps in the evolution of KHI from a team that has historically excelled in select Nationwide efforts, to one making its most serious bid yet for the series crown.

"We definitely see the benefit of being able to be a championship contender week in and week out," said DeLana Harvick, who owns and operates KHI along with her husband, Kevin. "Honestly, I think it's better for the team, because there's that consistency. It's hard to sort of come in week in and week out when you rotate drivers .... It's hard for the guys who look for that consistency and chemistry. It's fun, don't get me wrong. But as far as the foundation we've built, we feel like we're ready to make that step."

Although KHI has won two championships with Ron Hornaday in the Truck Series, the organization's Nationwide efforts traditionally have been limited to campaigns by Harvick or shorter stints by either moonlighting Cup pilots or up-and-coming drivers. The team hadn't run for the championship since 2006, when Burney Lamar was released after making 29 starts. Although KHI has fielded limited entries for a number of younger drivers since then -- Kelly Bires, Cale Gale and Austin Dillon among them -- the economic costs of waiting for a hopeful to develop simply precluded mounting a full-time effort toward the championship.

"In the past, the opportunities hadn't presented themselves with an experienced driver, and being able to sell it with a sponsorship," Kevin Harvick said. "That's the biggest problem that we have, selling the sponsorship to put guys behind the wheel. For me, I get frustrated sometimes with the process that it takes to put a young driver through, and to go through all the torn-up race cars and the inexperience and all the things that go with that. If the sponsorships were there to go through those processes and everyone would be patient with it, but I know how it works. The sponsors aren't going to be patient with a young guy not running up front and tearing up stuff and being really inconsistent. That isn't going to fly in these times right now."

KHI has been through that situation before, and it's tough on more than just car sponsors. "It's hard on everybody," DeLana Harvick said. "The sponsors want to know why we're not running better. We've never been the kind of company that will not manage your expectations. If you want to come in and put a young driver in there, then we'll be pretty honest with you and say, this could be a long process. It's hard for the partners. and honestly, it's hard for the guys on the team, because your chances of wrecking more equipment and spending a lot more time in the shop -- that's pretty realistic when you're talking about a young kid."

A proven commodity, though, changes the equation. That's what KHI found in Sadler, a well-known name who won three races at NASCAR's top level and showed a willingness to move to the Nationwide tour after the end to his most recent Sprint Cup campaign, a trying stint at Richard Petty Motorsports. It was Sadler's availability that helped convince KHI to take the next step in its Nationwide efforts and field a full-time car for the championship.

"[It was] partly because he was available," DeLana Harvick said. "When [car sponsor] OneMain came along, being able to run well and contend for that championship was important to them. I think honestly, that's what pushed them in our direction, because some of the other teams we were up against maybe had some younger talent in the car. Not to say they couldn't go out and be competitive and run well, but I think you're stacking your deck a little bit when you throw somebody like an Elliott Sadler in the mix for that."

So far, so good -- although Sadler hasn't won a race thus far this season, he's held the points lead for much of the year under the series-limiting criteria NASCAR put in place prior to 2011. And for KHI, there's a little more at stake, a little more skin in the game. Highs like a good run at Kentucky are that much higher, lows like a crash on the last lap at Daytona are that much lower, and the Nationwide title is the ultimate goal.

"It's fun when things work out," DeLana Harvick said. "We had a lot of skin in the game [at Daytona] and sat on the front row and it didn't turn out that great. But that's speedway racing. When you have that much invested, the ultimate payoff is that championship."