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Harvick laid groundwork for a graceful exit

NASCAR.com

JOLIET, Ill. -- At Chicagoland Speedway, the spotlight swings back and forth between controversy and championship. On one end is a race manipulation scandal that resulted in historic penalties to Michael Waltrip Racing, and altered the makeup of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. On the other is a title battle headlined by a five-time series champion and two drivers from a Joe Gibbs Racing organization with something to prove.

Somewhere in the middle, a little bit unheralded and a lot overlooked, is Kevin Harvick.

Just like he likes it.

"It's just kind of like a lot of the races that we win," the Richard Childress Racing driver said. "We're not flashy about it, we don't go out and lead a lot of laps. We work on our car all day, we put ourselves in position. I think a lot of that just comes from how I was brought up to race. You tear your car up in the beginning, you don't get the biggest check at the pay window at the end, and you might not get to race next week. It's just kind of where we are and what we do."

Talk about controversy -- this was supposed to be the season Harvick was mired in it, after confirming in January that he was leaving RCR for Stewart-Haas Racing at the end of the year. For a driver known for his intensity and an organization where loyalty is as important as speed, there seemed no way it would work. And yet, here's Harvick at Chicagoland, the fourth seed in a Chase that begins Sunday, with two race wins to his credit and sailing along through a campaign that from the outside appears about as smooth as any in his career.

In retrospect, no one should be surprised. This is a driver who once earned the moniker "the Closer" for his penchant of popping up late to steal races he seemed to have no business winning, who can lie in the weeds with the best of them, who can be every bit as stealthy as he is fast. It helped that Harvick laid the groundwork for all this before the year began, informing Childress and the team's sponsors of his impending move early in the process so everyone could get emotion out of the way and focus fully on performance.

The results are evident. Rather than slogging through the final weeks of a messy split, Harvick is trying to bring RCR its first championship since Dale Earnhardt's last title in 1994 -- and in the process, become the only modern-era Sprint Cup driver to win a crown before changing teams.

"Everything was over by the time we got through the winter," Harvick said, "? so I feel like everyone's been respectful of trying to perform. Me performing and RCR performing on the race track is good for them, it's good for me, it's good for SHR, it's good for everybody. Our egos don't need to be bent in the wrong direction to not perform well, and I think at the beginning of the year everybody pretty much wrote us off just kind of waiting for the team to implode. And that hasn't happened."

It hasn't to a large degree because Harvick is surrounded by veterans of the No. 29 team -- foremost among them crew chief Gil Martin, who's in his fourth stint calling signals for Harvick, and has recorded 11 race victories with the driver from Bakersfield, Calif. Harvick may be departing after this season, but Martin said the crew will stay together and work with a new driver (presumably Austin Dillon) in the vehicle next year.

"We still have the same goal, even though he's leaving," Martin said. "We want to try to win this championship, and it's our job to try to make him regret the decision that he's leaving. Plus, even though he's leaving, we're still going to continue on. We're not going to throw the towel in. Whoever we put in this car, we plan on running good and winning races still. I think with all of that said, it just shows you how much of a professional Kevin, this race team, and our company has been in the fact that this didn't drag us down."

Harvick credits his crew chief with keeping things smooth between himself and Childress, and ensuring the team keeps focus. RCR will look different next season, with Ryan Newman replacing Jeff Burton in the organization's No. 31 car, and Dillon making the move up from the NASCAR Nationwide Series. It's the potential of that future, Martin said, that keeps everyone on the No. 29 team so grounded in the present rather than wistful over what's going away.

"The fact of the matter is, if we let ourselves get caught up in it, we can," Martin said. "But we just don't dwell on it. We just really don't think about it. We don't talk about it. It's not like we come in and talk about it. I think it's the fact that we're still looking toward the future. If we were looking at this like a 10-race deadline, and everything was coming to an end, that would be a different story. But it's not.

"This company's not closing down just because Kevin's leaving. That happens sometimes when a driver leaves and announces that early -- the company's either on the tail end of their longevity or whatever else, and I think right now we've got so many positives that are going on at RCR, I think that's what got everybody doing their job each week and not being distracted by all of this going on. Because quite frankly, we want that No. 1 parking spot for next year."

Which, of course, goes to the reigning series champion. Although Harvick hasn't won since the Coca-Cola 600 in May, he's been his usual steady self between then and now, climbing into the top five in points in the early summer and strengthening his position from there. Whether he's capable of pushing Johnson or the JGR tag team of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch for the title is yet to be seen, but "the car's had speed," Martin said. "That's all we can ask for."

And, there's another reason. "I think we're capable because of the fact that we all don't really care," Harvick said. "Know what I mean? We want to win, but we don't really care how we get there, whether it's flashy or not. ? We just want to win, and how we get there, nobody really cares. There's really no written script on how that approach needs to be, so we've decided to approach it on a week-to-week basis. It's not about telling everybody what you think, or Gil having some big plan. We're all just motoring along and doing our thing."

As they have so often over Harvick's 13-year Sprint Cup career at RCR, which began under tremendous duress in the wake of Earnhardt's death, and will end following this season's finale at Homestead. In the interim, the 37-year-old became the flagship driver for a proud organization with six titles to its name. No wonder, then, Harvick wanted to do this right, to not just play out the string but to engineer a graceful exit that gave his team one more chance at the championship that to this point has eluded them.

Now, they have it. And Sunday begins Kevin Harvick's final run with the only team he's ever known.

"I really thought after Richard and I had sat down and talked about everything, and talked to the sponsors, and let everybody know where we were at, it was more to prove a point," he said. "Because our reputations were on the line as to how we acted and how we took control of the situation and made it happen. So I felt like there was more for us to prove as people, so when we got done with the year, everybody could kind of look back and say, 'There have been a lot of people who have been in that situation that haven't handled it as well as they have.' And that's still my goal, to get to the end of the year and have that said."

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