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February 19, 2023

Kevin Harvick, competitors reflect on illustrious career ahead of final Daytona 500

Kevin Harvick smiles at Daytona
Sean Gardner
Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kevin Harvick is a planner. Always has been, he says.

This year’s agenda looks a little different.

The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series circuit will be Harvick’s final, capping a 23-year career at the sport’s top echelon. Plenty will be routine for the 2014 series champion when he gets to the track. But a lot will be new.

“I always feel like when I start the season, I know what the plan is, and I know what I am trying to accomplish and what I am working toward,” Harvick said. “From the racing side, it is the same. But this year is just a different plan. You go out and execute the plan and start working on the next plan.”

RELATED: Harvick to retire after 2023 | Kevin Harvick through the years

The next step is already public — a transition into the FOX Sports play-by-play booth to serve as an analyst alongside longtime lead Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer, a longtime teammate of Harvick.

Thousands of laps remain before Harvick trades his steering wheel for a microphone, though — coupled with a good bit of reflection.

His recent accomplishments are the most memorable because they are the freshest — 60 career wins, a Cup title and an astounding 790 series starts. His transition to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 with crew chief Rodney Childers immediately proved fruitful, producing the Cup championship in addition to five victories that season. Last year, he became the first driver to win back-to-back races in the Next Gen vehicle.

But forgotten these days are the successes of Kevin Harvick Inc., his former Xfinity Series and Craftsman Truck Series teams.

Harvick launched the Truck program in 2001 but didn’t take it full-time until 2004, the same season he launched his Xfinity Series operation. In an eight-year span, that team collected 10 Xfinity wins, 43 Truck victories and two series championships. Harvick also scored Xfinity titles in 2001 and 2006, competing mainly for Richard Childress Racing, where he began his illustrious career.

Kevin Harvick celebrates at Atlanta in 2001.
Jonathan Ferrey | ALLSPORT

The relationship with RCR was deeply rooted by 2001, but Harvick’s leap to Cup that year was shrouded in tragedy, tasked with replacing seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt in the renumbered No. 3 Chevrolet to what became the No. 29 car.

Despite the immense pressure and awkward nature of the circumstances, Harvick overcame and achieved his own significant success, highlighted by an Atlanta win in just his third Cup start. What — and how — Harvick has achieved is not lost on longtime competitor and 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski.

“I look at Kevin and think of the opportunity that he had 22 years ago, and I can’t imagine having to go through that set of circumstances and the weight that would come with that and trying to take that forward,” Keselowski said. “And to be able to do that and to overcome that weight and to win races at all three levels and championships as owner [and] driver at all three levels, I can’t think of anyone else that’s done that — at least not in this era to the regard that he’s done it.

“I think that’s a tremendous accomplishment. It’s easy to lose sight of. We get so focused on ‘what have you done last week’ that I think sometimes we lose sight on what people have done over their career and certainly sometimes even over just a few years.”

Through his accomplishments on and off the track, Harvick has garnered respect and admiration from his competitive peers — those who have raced him for two decades and those who are only getting their first tastes of racing the veteran.

Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick stand next to each other
Jonathan Ferrey | Getty Images

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, a rookie in 2002 who returns to Daytona for his first NASCAR appearance since the 2020 season concluded, didn’t always get along with Harvick. He once suggested Childress fire Harvick following a crash in the 2005 duel qualifying race. That dynamic changed over time. Now a team owner himself at Legacy Motor Club, Johnson sees all Harvick has contributed to stock car racing.

“I think Kevin has offered so much in so many ways,” Johnson said. “He’s not only a fierce competitor but is someone who grew up in the sport and grew up in it and cares for it. He’s always taken the time to understand the point he wants to make and is confident in the point that he makes.

“He’s looked through the ownership lens, as we all know, and certainly the driver lens. He’s been with multiple organizations and different leaders. He’s a very well-rounded, intelligent driver/businessman. I have a ton of respect for what’s accomplished inside and out of the car.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Austin Cindric, the defending Daytona 500 champion and Cup Series sophomore who recently had his fair share of Harvick interactions at the exhibition Clash at The Coliseum on Feb. 5.

“My most recent encounter with Kevin was at the Coliseum, and I got dumped twice in one heat race,” Cindric recalled. “But past that, it’s been fun to get to know him. I would categorize him as a polarizing figure just because I feel like he speaks his mind, and I feel like that does a lot for the industry.

“I have gotten an ass-chewing from Kevin at COTA last year, and that was an interesting experience, but I feel like understanding where he sits and where his career is at … I think it’ll be fun to see how he races this year. By that, I mean I don’t think he’s gonna care about anyone else all year, and I think the Coliseum was a good gauge of that.”

Harvick admitted there’s probably some truth to that, courtesy of some advice from another friend and former competitor.

“Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. summed it up for me by saying it was my ‘NFG’ tour. I said, ‘you’re right,'” Harvick laughed. “If we have to settle scores, we will settle them immediately. We aren’t waiting until next week. If it rolls, we are settling them.”

MORE: 2023 Daytona 500 schedule | Cup Series schedule

Chase Elliott, the five-time defending Most Popular Driver, had his own heated encounter with Harvick at Bristol Motor Speedway during a playoff race in 2021. While that memory lingers, it doesn’t cloud what Harvick has meant to Elliott, the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like there’s been a lot of mutual respect,” said Elliott, who begins his eighth full-time season this year. “Our disagreement there at Bristol is probably always going to stand out. But it goes much deeper than that.

“Kevin has been a great ally of mine early in my career. I’ve referenced that, the questions here lately. I’m very appreciative of that, him being able to lend a hand there early in my career. I appreciate his time and willingness to help me learn and help get me and steer me in a good direction going into some of those tracks for the first time in my rookie year of Xfinity.”

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick
Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images

Another once-fiery rivalry that has cooled considerably is Harvick’s with Kyle Busch. The duo traded plenty of barbs (and paint) over the years — including a Darlington conflict in 2011 that saw Busch punt Harvick’s empty car into the wall post-race.

These days? The two are good enough friends to have shared a rental-car ride on Wednesday, conjuring memories of a NASCAR film classic.

“It’s kind of weird, right?” Busch quipped. “Almost the ‘Days of Thunder’ where we should have got our own rental cars. Would have been a Ford versus Chevy. That would have been funny. But yeah, him having Keelan, me having Brexton and us having other things outside of just the race track and different things in life, like you mentioned about focusing on and what it’ll teach you has certainly meant a lot to the both of us and how we can relate and work with one another.”

Harvick has established himself as a leader inside the NASCAR garage, an authoritative voice as the series’ most experienced driver. He didn’t always want to accept that role, though.

Feeling as though his opinions hadn’t been considered, Harvick began shying away from significant involvement within the paddock and with the sport’s leadership. That changed over the past year as Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman incurred concussions from crashes during the 2022 season.

From left, Chase Briscoe, Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. smile ahead of the Clash at the Coliseum
Araya Doheny | Getty Images

“It really lit a fire to me to make sure that you didn’t leave them hanging before you left, and you tried to establish something that was better for them before we left,” Harvick said. “For all of us, it has been eye-opening to have to establish relationships and talk to each other in the same room because it just hasn’t been that way in 15 years.

“When Dale [Earnhardt Sr.] and all those guys were coming up through the years, those guys all traveled together and were really good friends. And it has kind of evolved away from all of that with the way that today’s industry works. For us to have to sit in rooms and talk to each other and learn more about each and get to know each other, I feel like I have gotten to know more of the guys over the last year-and-a-half than I have in the last 10 years.”

Harvick’s accomplishments and contributions to NASCAR have solidified an outstanding legacy, one which will surely be enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame once eligible to be voted in. KHI still reigns strong, now as KHI Management, a sports service and celebrity-marketing agency that represents athletes from racing to mixed martial arts. Current NASCAR competitors repped by the brand include Ryan Preece, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Harrison Burton.

“I think there are a lot of people in this sport who are successful in one piece of the environment,” Keselowski said. “But to be successful in multiple pieces of the environment is that much more challenging, so to be able to have that legacy is one that I’m sure Kevin is proud of. And as the industry reflects back over the course of the year, I hope it takes the time to remember as well.”