“It’s just time,” Harvick says of the final 2023 season

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CHARLOTTE, NC (AP) — Kevin Harvick got the same answer almost every time he asked another athlete how they decided to retire: Harvick would just know it was time.

The driver burst onto the world stage when he was named Dale Earnhardt’s replacement just days after Earnhardt’s fatal 2001 crash will make this 23rd season his last in NASCAR. The 2014 Cup champion enters his final year tied for ninth on NASCAR’s all-time wins list with 60 career wins, 13 consecutive playoff appearances and is one of the last active drivers in the sport’s halcyon days .

“After talking to all the people I talked to, it all came down to the same thing, ‘Oh, you’ll know, you’ll know it’s time, you’ll know the right moment,'” Harvick said in an interview. to the Associated Press ahead of his announcement on Thursday.

“It’s great to be able to go out on your own terms and plan things the way you want, but the biggest thing I care about is my kids. Being home with them and seeing the impact you have on them when you’re home, being able to participate in the day-to-day process and being a parent, it’s just time.”

At the end of this season, Harvick will turn his attention to Kevin Harvick Inc., his growing management business, his enjoyable time in the TV booth, some roster racing, and most importantly, his young racing family.

Harvick and his wife, DeLana, were adamant that they would not raise racers, but the slow early days of the COVID-19 pandemic have given father and son too much free time, and 10-year-old Keelan is now karting internationally. The young driver spent part of 2022 racing in Italy — sometimes traveling abroad without his parents — and Harvick estimates he only saw his son race three times last year.

And then there’s Piper, his 5-year-old daughter, who now craves daddy’s attention as she rides her own go-kart.

“You know, Keelan, he needs a father figure in his life, especially when he’s on the racing circuit,” Harvick told the AP. “And then Piper probably wants to go to the go-kart track more than he does, and to have to send her to the track by herself is very disappointing to me.

“You don’t want her to not have the opportunity to study like he did. While I’m there, she takes twice as many steps a day as she does when I’m gone. So there’s a point where you have to ask yourself, “What is most important to me, my time, and my family right now?”

Harvick had already overcome NASCAR’s odds to break into the southern sport from Bakersfield, Calif., when Richard Childress Racing announced he would be a Cup rookie alongside seven-time champion Earnhardt in 2002. But when Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 opener Daytona 500 season, Harvick’s career was turned upside down.

Five days after Earnhardt’s death — less than a week before the 25-year-old’s planned wedding to DeLana — he was driving the rebranded No. 29 Chevrolet, and that busy season in the spotlight was a blur. Harvick won in his third start, less than a month after Earnhardt’s death, and split his time between another Cup ride and the Busch Series championship he was chasing.

Harvick competed in 69 NASCAR national races that season with a pair of Cup wins and five wins en route to Busch’s title. He’s been busy, but he’s grown tired of the attention, the endless comparisons to Earnhardt and the pressure of replacing a superstar during the yearlong mourning period that has engulfed NASCAR.

Maybe that’s what made Harvick so tough.

Early in his career, he often clashed with his rivals and was disqualified from the 2002 Cup race for his actions in the Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway the day before. The incident forged a relationship between Harvick and the late Jim Hunter, a NASCAR executive who helped Harvick navigate the sport’s politics.

But he never softened, even after the birth of children.

After a 2014 playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway in which Harvick was a bystander in an argument between Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski, Harvick pushed Keselowski into Gordon and Gordon’s team to provoke a melee.

Harvick refused to discuss his role in the fight for days, relenting only when he finally admitted that son Keelan needed to hear him take responsibility — even if Harvick was unrepentant.

Harvick doesn’t know if his toughness changed in the first few years after Earnhardt’s death, but he admits the internal pressure to do things his way and create his own legacy really intensified around 2006. Some of Earnhardt’s sponsors began to withdraw the car and Harvick now had to stand his ground and prove his worth.

“We went through the tough years of going from what Dale liked to what I liked, and through all those battles and conversations, you became wary and a jerk,” Harvick told the AP. “Looking back on it now, you can see that you could have done things differently, but I had to think, ‘I have to do things my way now,’ and that created some tension. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything but Dale’s death, because all those things that happened over the next five years were part of surviving and succeeding and making something and learning what’s right and what’s wrong.”

His approach led to a strained relationship, including a stint with seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson. Both came to North Carolina from California and both crashed on Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr.’s couch while competing in NASCAR.

But as Johnson racked up title after title and Harvick struggled through lean years with RCR, the relationship soured, with Harvick kicking Johnson in the chest after a 2015 playoff race when Johnson tried to talk to him about an on-track incident.

“We’ve had our problems, we’ve been great, we’ve had friendships, we’ve been through it all,” Johnson told the AP. “I think there’s a lot of respect between the two of us. I really admire his journey and what he has overcome. Coming from the West Coast as a starting point, moving up the ladder, we’re losing Dale and he’s in this position… there’s just a lot of layers and I respect his work ethic, his dedication and his career.”

Harvick, who added a second Busch title in 2006, counts the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Brickyard 400 and Southern 500 among his crowning victories. Harvick also won NASCAR’s first race during the pandemic in front of empty stands at Darlington Raceway in May 2020, when NASCAR became the first major sport to return to competition.

Harvick told the AP that the biggest regret of his career was his 2013 split with Richard Childress — who he worked with for a year before he moved to Stewart-Haas in 2014 — and he’s grateful that the relationship recovered.

At SHR, he developed a strong bond with co-owner Tony Stewart, team principal Rodney Childers and his entire No. 4 team. Harvick and Childers are currently the longest active driver-crew chief pairing in the Cup Series at 10 years. Among their 37 victories are a pair of wins last season that snapped a 65-race winless streak — the second-longest of Harvick’s career.

It was Stewart, a three-time Cup winner and Hall of Famer, who encouraged Harvick to announce his retirement early and enjoy his final year. In his final season, Stewart avoided all send-offs and thank-yous, something Harvick told the AP Stewart now regrets.

Harvick opens the season early next month with the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, followed by his final Daytona 500 season opener on Feb. 19.

“I want Kevin to savor every lap this season, compete like hell and take it all in,” Stewart said. “He has made all of us at Stewart-Haas Racing incredibly proud, and we want to make his final season the best yet.”

Harvick has said confidently that he won’t compete in the Cup Series after this year, but he’s not completely done with racing. In fact, he already has plans for a new late model that he plans to prepare for himself the day Keelan is old enough to fight his father.

“Now he’s a cocky 10-year-old who thinks he can beat anybody,” Harvick told the AP. “We’ll see when the time comes.”



“It’s just time,” Harvick says of the final 2023 season

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