AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The plans to retire at the end of this year had been in place so long that every race weekend of Kevin Harvick’s 23rd season felt fairly routine.
Until it came time for the last one.
As Harvick readied to return to Phoenix Raceway — a track where he was once practically unbeatable — it finally hit him that he’s done as a NASCAR Cup Series driver. He’ll retire after Sunday’s race and next year move into the Fox Sports broadcast booth.
“All the weeks leading up to this particular one were really not that hard. I think this week was a little more difficult just because it is the last week with your guys and the people and everything that you do is actually coming to an end,” Harvick said. “I don’t think up until this point, I don’t think anybody really thought it was real and this week it’s pretty real. There isn’t a next week.”
Not as a NASCAR driver, at least.
Harvick isn’t going very far and can’t really fathom a life away from the racetrack. In addition to his upcoming move to the media side of the business, Harvick owns a driver management company, is part owner of a late model racing series, runs a golf cart business and is raising two young racers of his own.
When Stewart-Haas Racing unloaded his No. 4 Ford at Phoenix on Friday, his son and daughter had written messages on the car in black marker.
“Congrats on a great career Dad! Love you. KPH,” wrote 11-year-old Keelan.
“I’m so proud of you,” wrote Piper, who turns 6 in December, with a heart above her message.
Harvick placed his hand on the hood of his car and grinned at the messages, even as the emotions began to hit him that his long and adventurous career has come to a quiet ending.
He was shoved into the Cup Series five days after Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500. Harvick was supposed to be eased into Cup competition by Richard Childress Racing and mentored by the seven-time champion Earnhardt, and instead was his emergency replacement.
The pressure of the situation was unbelievable and Harvick found the spotlight far too bright for his comfort. He got into altercations with rivals, was combative with NASCAR officials and the media, and generally made the situation he’d inherited more difficult than it already was for the then 25-year-old.
Now he’s 47 and a former Cup champion with 60 career victories, good for 10th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list. He can still be cranky and the additional free time he’ll soon have has left Keelan “terrified” because Dad is now going to be available to attend his races.
“I’m going to be at way more races than what I was before, and he knows that I’m going to be all over him a lot more than I am right now,” Harvick said. “Right now, he can go off and do his thing and race and dad’s not there to critique every single move that he makes, so that party is over.”
But it might not be such a bad thing for Keelan to have his father around a bit more at the track. The Harvick who is stepping away has learned so much over his two-plus decades in NASCAR, personally and professionally, and is ready to help his children not make the same mistakes he did.
“We’ll get into some sort of disagreement of why you should do something or why you shouldn’t do something. He’ll say, ‘Well, you did this or you did that.’ And I’ll tell him, ‘That’s exactly why I’m sitting here telling you not to do that. If you’ll just shut up and listen, I’ll make you better,'” Harvick said. “It’s not very hard. I’ve already been down this road and I’ve already made this mistake. I’m not telling you this is how you have to do it, but just listen to me and then you take it and you evolve from there.”
But he’s learned his son is as stubborn as he is, which Harvick believes he can circumvent by surrounding Keelan with outside coaching.
“Keelan is pretty easy because he’s a lot like me. He’s a lot like me in the way that he acts, and the things that he does, and the things that he says,” Harvick said. “He is very coachable because of the fact that I know his next move.”
It was Keelan’s push to launch his own racing career that reignited the passion inside Harvick, even as he’s struggled the last two years of his career. He’s winless this season and was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
Harvick is a nine-time winner at Phoenix in the Cup Series.
“Before I had kids I would say, ‘Don’t ever get involved in racing. You don’t want to do it. It’s not the lifestyle you want to live,’” Harvick said. “And then you have kids and you look around and you realize, ‘Man, this is really what my life is all about. I love racing.’ That really came from watching Keelan race and watching him grow to love this sport and watching the other parents and the other kids.
“That’s what I’ve done my whole life. You get in this mode where you walk in the racetrack, you’ve got your head down, you walk to your hauler, you put your suit on, you walk from the hauler to the car and from the car to the hauler and from the hauler home,” he continued. “And I can’t wait to walk in the racetrack with my head up and just look around because I have really never done that.”
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