CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- These days, the driver of the No. 29 race car is only the second most popular member of the Harvick household.
Because everyone's asking about Keelan.
"Constantly, yeah," said his father Kevin, an 18-time winner on NASCAR's premier series. "Everybody wants to know, and that's OK, though. The best interview I've done today was nothing about racing. It was about things I know about being a dad. It's fun to be able to answer the questions and smile about it and have fun with it."
That was certainly the case Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where Harvick's infant son was the primary topic during a question-and-answer session the Richard Childress Racing driver held with fans. Oh sure, those in attendance wanted to know about his weekly schedule and his more memorable crashes and pranks in the motor home lot and his future with RCR. But neither fans nor moderator Winston Kelley could resist asking about the three-month-old that Harvick and his wife DeLana can be seen cradling in their arms during driver introductions before each race.
"It's been great," Harvick beamed. "Obviously, the things that you don't expect or you can't really plan for are just time in general, doing what we do on a weekly basis. Even though we know when the race is going to start -- when the race is over, or he's hungry, or a diaper needs to be changed or he needs to sleep, you're not going anywhere. Really, it's on his time. But that's OK. I never thought I'd laugh about getting peed on or [him] having some bodily function. The things you learn as a parent. But it's been very enjoyable, and every day something new is happening, so it's been a lot of fun."
It's become a familiar topic, given this baby boom that's swept across NASCAR's top division, with several drivers entering fatherhood and more still to come. Harvick is far from the first driver to have his edges softened slightly by a wriggling, cooing bundle in a blanket. And yet, the RCR driver became a dad just as his Sprint Cup campaign took a turn for the worse -- and right before a Chase in which Harvick's No. 29 team has struggled to stay competitive with the championship contenders at the top of the standings. His plight is reflected in RCR as whole -- the organization is winless on the season and, on Tuesday, hired Eric Warren as new competition director.
So, for Harvick on a professional front, these are challenging times. At 10th in points and 56 behind leader Brad Keselowski with five races remaining in the season, he'll need a miracle to get back in the title hunt. Frustrating seasons are nothing new to a driver who's endured plenty of peaks and valleys during his time at Childress. This year, though, one thing is different -- he goes home, and it all melts away. Particularly now that Keelan is starting to smile and move around and do all those things that leave new parents so awestruck and joyful all at the same time.
His nickname has always been "Happy," an often ironic moniker for a driver who can show his prickly side. Now, though, it fits. Fatherhood has made for a happy Harvick indeed.
"To me, it's been a great balance and addition to my life," he said. "It's made DeLana and I closer.
"We've had a little bit of a frustrating year, and I think in a lot of years past it would have been a lot worse. Because it's more frustrating when all you do during the week is constantly think about it and you get mad. And now you come home, and he doesn't care. He doesn't know any different whether you've done good or bad. So, by the time you get to Monday, you're in a pretty good mood -- no matter how good or bad the weekend's been. To me, that's been a great addition, because I can stay a lot calmer and focus in a little better frame of mind then what I could before when we had problems."
Of course, those problems at the race track aren't going away. Warren comes to RCR from Richard Petty Motorsports, where he had held the same role for two years. Harvick admits, as of Tuesday, the two had never met. "It's all kind of an unknown to me," he said. The new competition director takes on something of a rebuilding project, given that Harvick's teammates Paul Menard and Jeff Burton are 16th and 19th in points, respectively. Harvick was the lone driver to make the Chase for RCR, which hasn't won since Clint Bowyer -- now a three-time race winner and Chase participant with Michael Waltrip Racing -- prevailed at Talladega in the fall of last season.
Harvick believes he can trace RCR's struggles to changes on the race cars. NASCAR cut the length of the side skirts on the vehicles in late spring, an alteration that led many teams to begin tinkering in other areas, and ultimately produced the yaw setups that Hendrick Motorsports first used so expertly. Harvick stood fifth in the points as recently as July, right about the same time the yaw craze began to sweep through the garage area. RCR, he said, fell behind in that area and never regained ground.
"When we cut the side skirts, the whole garage went a different direction, and we never caught back up," he said. "That's really where our season went sideways, was when they cut all the skirts. We've run terrible since that happened. And that was what, an inch? ... Ever since that particular point, our performance has just gone out the window. Because we started the year pretty good and were contenting for races. As soon as they cut those skirts, we've never caught back up."
On the eve of the Chase, there was a crew chief change -- with Gil Martin returning to replace Shane Wilson. Since the playoff began, Harvick's best finish has been 11th -- hardly good enough to keep up with those at the top of the standings. Even so, he's managed to remain even-keeled through most of it. That added balance in his personal life bleeding over into the professional side. Last time he had a year like this, he was making noises about potentially leaving RCR. Now, he's hoping to help turn things around in 2013.
"I look back and see some of the frustrating years that we've gone through," he said, "and there's been a lot more turmoil involved with them than what's been involved with this particular year."
It was easy to get a hint that this was coming -- after all, last year the Harvicks shut down their successful Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series operation for a number of reasons. Among them were Kevin's hopes of putting more of his focus on a Cup championship run, as well as the couple's desire to start a family. The attempt at balance was there even before Keelan arrived. They were "trying to make sure we were as good [at being] parents as we could be," Harvick said, "... and we just didn't feel like we could do that to the fullest if we had the race team."
Ah, but leave it to little Keelan to bring thoughts of the race team back to some minds. One of the last questions Harvick was asked Tuesday was whether he'd revive his organization if his son ever showed the desire to race. Suddenly, the idea of something that can make college tuition seem cheap by comparison had zeroes and dollar signs speeding through Harvick's head.
"I hope he doesn't want to race. That's expensive," he said. "... We're going to buy Keelan some golf clubs and see how that works out first."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Richard Childress Racing