Going one-on-one with NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick has had a storied racing career, from winning seven national go-karting championships when he was young to winning his first championship at NASCAR’s top level, the Sprint Cup Series, in 2014. On his way to the Sprint Cup Series, he won the 1998 NASCAR Winston West Series (now the K&N Pro Series West) Championship and is also a two-time champion of the NASCAR Busch Series (now the XFINITY Series). In the Sprint Cup Series, Harvick’s accomplishments go beyond his 2014 championship. He won Rookie of the Year in 2001 and has won some of NASCAR’s biggest races, including the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, the Southern 500, the Coca-Cola 600, the Sprint All-Star Race, and the Sprint Unlimited.

The Daily Trojan sat down with Kevin Harvick for a couple of minutes on March 20 before racing activities began for the weekend’s XFINITY Series and Sprint Cup Series events at Auto Club Speedway. As we sat outside in the motor coach area, we discussed topics ranging from Harvick’s hometown of Bakersfield to the success of his Stewart-Haas Racing team.

James: “I’ve read that Rick Mears was one of your favorite drivers growing up. Why was Mears such a big inspiration for you besides the fact that he also came from Bakersfield?”


Kevin: “I grew up around Rick’s son Clint. We raced go-karts together. Then you had Roger and his whole family, and then now Casey racing in the Cup Series. I think when you look at the Indy Car Series at that particular time, that was really the biggest series in racing and Rick was kind of the king of that series during that particular era. So being from Bakersfield, it was just natural to root for Rick Mears, and as a kid growing up racing go-karts, you wanted to race in the Indy 500. Obviously, that didn’t work out and go that direction luckily, but all-in-all it was still really cool to have Rick as a part of the community at home.”

James: “Speaking of Bakersfield, your hometown, you continue to have a close connection with Bakersfield. Earlier this week, you were at the Bakersfield Boys and Girls Club where it was proclaimed that the day was ‘Kevin Harvick Day.’ What has changed in Bakersfield since you were young and what is it like knowing that the town that you grew up in and have done a lot for now has a day named after you?”

Kevin: “I think when you look at Bakersfield, it’s always been a very supportive community. I always tell people it’s kind of weird to have stuff like that happen in your hometown because I’ve gone back to Bakersfield really since I left and that would have been in the late ‘90s. So I go back there at least once or twice a year to visit my friends and family. This particular time, we were fortunate to go back and be able to make a good contribution to the Boys & Girls Club. I enjoy the town, I love where I came from, they’ve always been very supportive of everything that I’ve done, and now to be in the position that we’re in and be able to give back to the community is even cooler.”

James: “As you’ve risen through the ranks throughout the years, you competed in and been successful in a lot of different racing divisions, including late models, the Featherlite Southwest Tour, the K&N Pro Series, the Camping World Truck Series, and the XFINITY Series before obviously coming to the NASCAR (Sprint Cup) Series. Which of those series do you believe taught you the most about racing and what lessons did you learn in each series that you continue to use today in your Sprint Cup Series career?”

Kevin: “I think a lot of it is just a progression. I think when you look at starting off in go-karts, that really taught you the basis of how to race. No matter what you race, you are learning how to pass, you are learning to be in different situations, whether it was go-karts or stock cars. You still were racing and having to deal with situations. But I think as you go through time and you look at all the things that we were able to accomplish, probably the Truck Series was the biggest base of the foundation just for the fact that you got to go to a lot of the bigger race tracks for the first time on a national level, and be able to race against guys and really see how much harder it was, especially as you went up into the XFINITY Series and into the Cup Series. I came through the NASCAR ranks just how they were designed. I started in go-karts, and then I started in NASCAR: the late model series, and Southwest Tour, and Winston West, and Trucks, and XFINITY, and Cup. It was just how you would lay it out, and that’s what I always tell people: if you’re going to race and you’re not successful at the level that you’re at, there’s no reason to go to the next level because it’s only going to get harder.”

James: “One of your biggest breaks when it came to rising up through the ranks was, unfortunately, with the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt back in 2001 in the Daytona 500. Richard Childress appointed you to drive the GM Goodwrench Chevrolet under the #29. Let’s just say Childress did not make that move. Without Childress making that move, do you think that you would have the success that you’ve had in your career in the Sprint Cup Series? And where do you think you would be now and what would the journey have been like in NASCAR had Childress not appointed you at that time?”

Kevin: “I think we would have actually been in a better position, just for the fact that we had just signed America Online to a four-year contract for my Cup Series career. Atlanta was actually supposed to be my first race in the America Online car. I was scheduled to run seven races that year and then run full-time for the next three years with the group of guys that I was brought up through in the XFINITY Series. When everything happened with Dale, it was more out of necessity for RCR (Richard Childress Racing) and the company to keep going. But really, it really mixed everything up and really got me away from all the guys that I had been groomed and brought up with through the XFINITY Series, and then went with another group of guys and then things started to get shifted around. It took four or five years to really get a group of people around me that I was comfortable with, but it added a lot of complications to a lot of different things that obviously we had to deal with. But I think in the end, the path was already laid out for me to go Cup racing and it probably would have gotten off to a different start being around the group of guys that I grew up racing with.”

James: “Let’s skip over now to the beginning of last year when you switched to Stewart-Haas Racing. Since your move to Stewart-Haas Racing, you’ve been arguably the most dominant driver in the Sprint Cup Series. In your first season (with them last year), you had 5 wins, 8 poles, led more laps than any other driver, and you finally got your first Sprint Cup title. You’ve continued your dominance this year with two wins and two second-place finishes in four races. How have you and your team been able to put together such a strong performance in the short time you’ve been with each other? Is it the chemistry, is it the Stewart-Haas race cars, or is it something else?”

Kevin: “It’s the chemistry between all of it. You look at the core group of guys on our #4 team and you see how well everybody gets along, and how long most (of) everybody has been in the sport and you mix that in with a couple of young guys. But off the racetrack, these guys spend a lot of time together and enjoy being around each other. Then you add in Gene and Tony on the ownership side of things that allow Rodney a lot of free reign to do what he wants. You take that and you put it together with Hendrick Motorsports with the engines and chassis and resources that we get from Hendrick. There’s a lot of good things that come together, but the core of that whole thing is the chemistry between our #4 team.”

James: “Now I want to kind of go specifically into two different tracks where you have been really strong at: Phoenix, which you went to last week, and then Atlanta. So Phoenix, you’ve won there seven times (and) it’s very difficult with that dogleg corner that they have. Then Atlanta is just super slick. You’re one of the few drivers that has been able to figure it out at both tracks, with your wins at Phoenix and then in your last five races at Atlanta, you’ve finished four times within the top ten. In the XFINITY Series, you’ve won the last three races in a row at Atlanta. How have you been able to figure out those two difficult tracks when most of these other drivers can’t?”

Kevin: “Phoenix is a racetrack that I grew up racing on and they’ve obviously repaved the original track since we’ve come over the last few years. But I think as you look at the characteristics of Phoenix, they’re very similar to what they used to be and a lot of the characteristics at Phoenix in (turns) three and four are very similar to the old racetrack, so I think there‘s a lot of things that still apply there. I grew up racing at Phoenix and a lot of these tracks on the west coast that are very flat-type racetracks, so that was kind of the style of tracks that I grew up on. I think when you look at Atlanta, it’s just one of those places where the yellow line (has) some things about it that really help and I think Mesa Marin, the old track that I used to race at, is probably partially responsible because it’s the same style of driving and the things that you look for as far as things that can help you make your car handle. It’s a much bigger racetrack than Mesa Marin used to be, but a lot of the same styles and things that you look for to try to make the car go around the corner.”

James: “Now I want to switch over to NASCAR and all the different changes that they made. I’m not going to ask you your opinion on any of the changes that they’ve made. Among the recent changes they’ve made, obviously last year they changed the entire Sprint (Cup Chase) system to like a win and you’re in situation, and then this year they’ve added the in-car trackbar adjuster. As a driver and as a team member, how hard is it to adjust to the new rules that NASCAR announces and what kind of game plan do you and your team go through when a new change is announced?”

Kevin: “I look forward to the rules changes because I feel like our team is good at adapting to things. I think Rodney and Mike on the engineering team do a great job of getting there first before everybody else. That’s become pretty typical in NASCAR. NASCAR tries to make a lot of rule changes at the end of the year to make the competition better, not only for the race fans but make the competition more affordable for the race teams and the owners. There’s a lot for NASCAR to balance, but I think when you look at the engine package and what that’s going to turn into over the next couple of years and the amount of money that’s going to save the owners,… those are some big savings that could come there. I think when you look at the things that have changed this year for me, it’s probably a lot less than what it is for Rodney and those guys to adapt the set-ups to just because it’s really the same driving style (and) it’s just a lot more throttle time.”

James: “Moving away from NASCAR, I have two other questions for you. Getting into your personal life a little bit, your wife DeLana a couple of years ago gave birth to your son, Keelan. How did you come to the name Keelan and what has been some of your favorite moments so far with Keelan?”

Kevin: “Keelan was just really a name that we picked really, really quick. It’s kind of got a little bit of Kevin in it and a little bit of DeLana in it. We used the middle name Paul; that was her dad’s middle name. Obviously, he’s got the Harvick last name. Keelan has just really added a great balance to our life and really allowed us to look at everything that we do. (He) has allowed us to simplify life because our two goals were to be good parents and make sure we were doing a good job at work on Sundays. I’m fortunate I get to take my wife and son to work with me most of the time, at least until he gets old enough to go to school. But for right now, it’s a lot of fun and added a great balance to our lives.”

James: “I want to close by talking about your philanthropy. Your Kevin Harvick Foundation supports programs that help children around the United States, including an athletic scholarship at CSU Bakersfield. What are some of your favorite success stories from children who have benefited from the programs you support?”

Kevin: “From the time we started the foundation in 2007, it really stemmed from a fundraiser that we had at my old high school at North High and I think that’s probably the favorite thing that we’ve been able to do. When we started that fundraiser in 2007, the wrestling team was getting ready to shut down; the school was not really in a great spot. I went back there this week and you look at the wrestling team, (it has) as many kids on it as it’s ever had, the sports programs are doing great, (and) the school is in the middle of a complete renovation process that they hadn’t had since the late ‘50s/early ‘60s. I think when you look at the impact that we‘ve been able to be a part of and the amount of kids that we’ll be able to affect through the years at that particular high school is really, really exciting for me. When you look at the principal and the people involved in the school district that have been a part of making all that stuff happen, it’s just really, really exciting and makes you feel like you’re making a difference.”