Commentary

Ownership hat fits Harvick

Updated: March 18, 2009, 10:18 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

If you can't remember the last time you told your daddy you love him, you may want to pick up the phone. Just sayin' …

Marty,

Is it just me or has Kevin Harvick chilled out a lot lately? He seems like he's grown up and left that cockiness he had behind. I'm from his hometown and I've always followed his career, and I'm impressed with the difference I see in him lately. Do you see it, too?

-- Cathryn Sumter, Bakersfield, Calif.

Undoubtedly so, Cathryn. Harvick has matured immensely in the past couple of years. He admits it, and for several reasons. Team ownership is one primary reason. When he started his own Truck Series program, then later expanded into the Nationwide Series, he saw the sport from the other side.

Suddenly, he took a polar-opposite perspective from the only one he'd known before.

The sport looks wholly different from behind a desk than it does from behind the wheel.

[+] EnlargeKevin Harvick
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezKevin Harvick enjoyed a special bond with the late father of his wife, Delana.

He learned the difficulty of balancing emotion versus production versus performance, not to mention the human element that so often determines success in that equation. In time, that understanding began to spill over into his day job -- driving the No. 29 Chevrolet.

"He's more patient with [Richard Childress Racing]," RCR team manager Mike Dillon said. "Don't get me wrong, he has the same fire and intolerance for lack of speed as ever, but his understanding of why it happens is 10 times better.

"That fire and lack of patience as a driver is what makes him so good. If you hear him on the radio he's not going to tolerate anything but the best. He just delivers the message differently now. It's night and day [difference]."

"It's been really good for him," said Jeff Burton, Harvick's teammate at RCR. "Race car drivers, we tend to look at things as only how they impact us, and we fail a lot of times to look at how decisions that are made impact the entire company, and understand why they're made.

"We think it's easier on the outside than it really is. I think that Kevin owning his own team has made him make hard decisions, when he knew everybody wasn't going to be happy with them. It's the worst of two evils. That's tough to understand until you have to do it. For some people, owning a race team would be too much.

"For him, it's been really good. It's showed him how hard it is."

He's a different person, too. More laid-back and jovial. Happier.

"Oh yeah, he's much happier," Dillon said. "He's to a point in his life's that's made him more comfortable, more satisfied with where he is. It's fun to watch. In communicating with him and seeing him mature, it's obvious he's in a really good place."

Fellow drivers have taken notice, too.

"Big time -- his attitude is completely different than when he came in," Elliott Sadler said. "His perception of racing is better. He's a lot smarter racer now -- and he's a damn good driver.

"I see a happier guy. When he first came in he was under a lot of pressure, and was trying to be somebody he wasn't -- cocky and aggressive. Now he's so laid-back. He's one of my favorite guys to be around in the whole sport."

Sadler makes an excellent point. Harvick doesn't get due credit for how he came into Cup. He had to physically replace the most revered driver in NASCAR history.

Imagine how confusing that must be.

He'd never say it, but I'd bet the farm that Harvick reflects on that time in some semblance of awe at how he managed it all. Burton does.

"That would've been really hard -- really damn hard," Burton said. "Following [Dale] Earnhardt would have been hard enough, but the situation was exceptionally hard. It's not like Earnhardt retired. He was killed. And five days later Kevin's at Rockingham driving that car. That's a tough deal and he handled it really well. Exceptionally well. That's a damn hard situation."

One of the biggest factors in Harvick's development may be his relationship with his late father-in-law, John Paul Linville. His wife, Delana, calls the bond her husband and her father shared very special.

"Their relationship made Kevin a better man, and a better person," Delana said.

It shows.

Marty,

Please explain to The Six what the heck that crew guy was thinking. The race sucked after he made the caution fly. All but 10 cars were a lap down. NASCAR should suspend him for the rest of the year!! So dumb!

-- Jack Armstrong near Wichita, Kan.

Come on, Jack. Really? This e-mail is ridiculous. Have some empathy. I'd venture to say you've had your share of professional screw-ups down at the warehouse or the pet store or the bank or wherever it is that you earn your mortgage payment.

Jimmy Watts can't enjoy becoming a household name. He's a Sprint Cup gasman, and Sprint Cup gasmen are anonymous. Like offensive linemen in football, the only time you even notice them is when they screw up. And, boy, did Jimmy Watts screw up.

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But you know what? It was honest.

Watts, the burly gas man for Marcos Ambrose's No. 47 Toyota, noticed a tire from his team's car rolling waywardly across the pit lane and into the frontstretch infield grass at Atlanta Motor Speedway this past Sunday, and reacted. He took off running to retrieve it.

A fine gesture, certainly. Problem is this was a green-flag pit stop. There were cars on the track at full speed, 100 feet away. He's lucky no one lost it off of Turn 4 and turned him into a speck of dust.

He knows that. It was readily apparent the moment NASCAR sent him home early -- a deserved reaction.

But for Watts to get chastised as he has is ridiculous. Many folks -- like Jack -- felt he ruined the race. I disagree. Yes, 80 percent of the field was caught a lap down. Frustrating? Hell, yes, it's frustrating.

But the caution would've flown whether Watts ran after the tire or not.

The only question is when.

As a result of his decision (reaction, whatever), NASCAR slapped Watts with a four-race vacation. Unbelievable. To him that means roughly three grand. I'm sure the sanctioning body feels they need to make an example of him.

They don't. Do they really think anyone on pit road doesn't know what Watts did was illegal? Do they think folks don't realize how indisputably stupid it was?

I took a driver poll, and many agree with NASCAR on the penalty. Some even said it wasn't harsh enough.

Not me. The only person Watts endangered was himself.

Some folks mention that if NASCAR didn't penalize Watts this way, it'd set a precedent that if a team desperately needed a caution, they'd be apt to send a crew member sprinting off into the grass. That's the craziest mess I've ever heard.

Plaid Pride: Pardon me for a brief detour to NCAA hoops. My alma mater, Radford University, won the Big South conference championship for the first time since 1998. In just two seasons, coach Brad Greenberg re-established our once-proud tradition as a competitive mid-major that stumbled of late under a stubborn former coaching regime. At RU, hoops is all we have. It feels fine to be dancin' again. Depending where we end up playing, I'm going to try to hit the game.

Marty,

You're on a roll this year! You were spot-on with Bobby Labonte and Kurt Busch. How did you know they would be competitive when they've been so awful? What did you see that the rest of us didn't? (Go 'Nols!)

-- Chris Delano, Tallahassee, Fla.

That's entirely too much credit, Chris. But thank you, I'll take it. I did call Labonte, but Busch? Not so much. This past season was the worst of his career, and there was nothing tangible that suggested to me he'd improve dramatically this year. I was dead wrong. He is a walking case study in NASCAR fickleness.

Pat Tryson took a car to Texas Motor Speedway for a Goodyear tire test and threw what he deemed to be conventional wisdom out the window. It worked. And that seems to be the norm.

Stevie Letarte, Jeff Gordon's crew chief, told me earlier this year that with the COT you take most everything you knew about the former body style car and reverse it when applying data and information to the new car. That must be maddening.

Ultimately, Busch and Gordon are both back. As I stated this past week, neither forgot how to drive cars. Both are champions for a reason -- elite talent, equipment and support.

Marty,

Were you at the Supercross race at Daytona this past Saturday? I know I saw you on TV from Atlanta, so I don't see how it was you I saw at the Supercross race, too.

-- Ashley Brownstone, Jacksonville, Fla.

Indeed it was me, Ashley. I went down there with some of my buddies for the evening after happy hour practice. I'd never seen Supercross before, and it was wonderful. The vibe was so different from NASCAR, laid-back in general but raucously aggressive in competition.

Those boys are fitness freaks, and made me wonder how Lance Armstrong would handle a 20-lap moto.

Song of the week: "Amarillo Sky," Jason Aldean. If you were blessed enough to grow up on a farm, you get it. The video is top-10 all-time. Regular people talking plainly about real issues. YouTube it. You'll see what I mean.

Marty,

Is this a good idea? Split the Cup and Grand National Series in two regions, East/West. Reduce race dates to 25. Marque events -- i.e. Daytona, Southern 500, Brickyard, All Star Challenge -- open to both regions. It would be cost-effective to car owners not to have to pay for haulers running cross country twice a season.

It would provide relief with regard to tracks seeking a legal remedy to attain a race date, i.e. Kentucky. It would provide a chance to get dates to markets starved for NASCAR.

New places, and how 'bout the return of the Southern 500, the Eastern region encompassing all the traditional tracks? Double market share. I could go on, but this is more than enough to get the gist of the idea.

-- Bill in Blue River

Well, let's see, Bill. Here's my first rebuttal: Just one Sprint Cup team is based west of the Mississippi -- Furniture Row in Denver. It's somewhat difficult to race yourself, so the West region wouldn't be overly competitive. Otherwise, you have some decent concepts.

I don't disagree the sport could use a schedule reduction. And for that matter 500 miles is too many at most of those events. Three-hundred miles is perfect, with a few 500-milers and the single 600-miler sprinkled in.

Thing is, it's not a snap-your-fingers fix. It's too far gone. Tracks aren't going to give up dates easily, and television rights and advertising are already sold. Many fans like 500-mile races.

Here's what I know for sure, and some in The Six are tired of hearing it but they'll be all right because it's true: Truck Series racing is amazing. It's short, fast and to the point. You only have 150 laps to get there, so you dang sure better get there now.

Marty,

Love your columns and insight, but what's up with the hair?

-- D. Drennan, Clover, S.C.

Fauxhawk, boss. There are two in NASCAR that I know of -- Jason Leffler and me. The jury is out on who stole it from whom. It doesn't require nearly as much product as you'd think.

Marty,

I'm a big 24 fan. I'm getting a little frustrated with all the people who are starting to say this is the year for Jeff Gordon to win the championship. It's great to see him running good again, but to win the championship he has to run good when it counts, the last 10 races, and beat the 48 team. The 48 team obviously has the Chase figured out. Running good and winning the championship are two very different things.

-- Matt Clark, Las Vegas

Better get used to it, Matt. If Gordon keeps running like this you'll hear title talk for the next 30 weeks. You're spot-on that the Sprint Cup season has become a two-in-one deal. Gordon's season in 2007 is the consummate example.

After Richmond that season he'd built a 312-point lead, then averaged a fifth-place finish during the Chase.

He still finished second to Johnson.

And Matt, come on, man. Lighten up. Gordon fans should be doing cartwheels right now, considering how this past year went.

That's my time. Driveway bowling and backyard T-ball beckon.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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