The 2023 season will be Kevin Harvick’s 23rd and final year as a NASCAR Cup Series driver. The 47-year-old racer will retire after the season finale Nov. 5 at Phoenix Raceway.
Known as “The Closer,” Harvick begins his last season in NASCAR’s premier division tied for ninth on the Cup Series’ all-time win list with 60 point-paying victories. He is only 99 laps shy of leading a staggering 16,000 laps in his career – one of only 11 drivers in the history of the sport to do so – and the Bakersfield, California-native is slated to make his 800th career Cup Series start April 23 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
“There is absolutely nothing else in the world that I enjoy doing more than going to the racetrack, and I’m genuinely looking forward to this season,” said Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing. “But as I’ve gone through the years, I knew there would come a day where I had to make a decision. When would it be time to step away from the car?
“I’ve sought out people and picked their brains. When I asked them when they knew it was the right time, they said it’ll just happen, and you’ll realize that’s the right moment. You’ll make a plan and decide when it’s your last year.
“It’s definitely been hard to understand when that right moment is because we’ve been so fortunate to run well. But sometimes there are just other things going on that become more important and, for me, that time has come.”
Harvick’s decision to make the 2023 season his last comes as the father of two eyes more family time. Together with wife, DeLana, they’ll continue to visit racetracks, but Harvick won’t be wearing a firesuit. His 10-year-old son, Keelan, is an avid karter who races internationally, and his 5-year-old daughter, Piper, is already following in the family’s tire tracks, wheeling a go-kart of her own.
“In the last year, I think I’ve seen Keelan race three times while he’s been in Europe. I go to the go-kart track with Piper and she makes twice as many strides in a day while I’m there than she would in a day when I’m not there. It takes a lot of time to organize the level of racing they’re doing, and to be around that is important to me,” Harvick said.
Karting is where Harvick’s career began. He was five when he first started racing in and around Southern California. Twenty years later, after competing and winning on the NASCAR Southwest Tour, earning the 1998 NASCAR Winston West championship, advancing to the NASCAR Truck Series and then the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Harvick was in Cup. However, it was under incredibly trying circumstances and immense pressure.
A 25-year-old Harvick was thrust into the national spotlight and tabbed to do the impossible – fill the void left by the passing of the sport’s icon, Dale Earnhardt. A crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 had taken Earnhardt’s life. In the midst of great personal sorrow, team owner Richard Childress needed to steady his organization. He chose Harvick, an up-and-coming racer who had a breakout season in 2000 by winning three races for his team in the second-tier Busch Series, known today as the Xfinity Series.
The No. 3, made famous by Earnhardt, was changed to the No. 29, and Harvick made his Cup Series debut on Feb. 25 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. Harvick started 36th that Sunday at Rockingham, but rain washed over the track just 51 laps into the 393-lap race. The race resumed at 11 a.m. ET on Monday, whereupon Harvick drove to a solid 14th-place finish. He then traveled to Las Vegas on Tuesday, got married on Wednesday, and was back in a racecar on Friday, competing in both the Xfinity Series and Cup Series events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. After finishing eighth on Sunday to score his first career top-10 in the Cup Series, Harvick headed to Atlanta Motor Speedway where on March 11, 2001 the first of his 60 Cup Series wins was secured in just his third career start.
“Dale’s passing changed our sport forever, and it changed my life forever and the direction it took. It took me a long time to really get comfortable to really even think about things that happened that day,” Harvick said.
“Looking back on it now, you realize the importance of getting in the Cup car, and then we wound up winning my first race at Atlanta in the 29 car after Dale’s death. The significance and the importance of keeping that car on the racetrack and winning that race early at Atlanta – knowing now what it meant to the sport, and just that moment in general of being able to carry on, was so important.”
Wise beyond his age, Harvick was able to compartmentalize and perform. In addition to running the remainder of the Cup Series schedule and winning again on July 15 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois, Harvick ran the entire Xfinity Series schedule, winning five races and cruising to the championship.
“We just found a way to make it work, and that’s what we did all year long,” said Harvick, who won a second Xfinity Series title in 2006, again running the full Cup and Xfinity schedules.
Making it work is what Harvick has done throughout his career. This was evident from day one at Stewart-Haas Racing, where he joined the team in December 2013 after spending 14 seasons with Childress.
Teamed with crew chief Rodney Childers, Harvick came out of the gate strong and never let up. It began with a dominating preseason test at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway and ended with an emphatic victory in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway that earned Harvick his long coveted Cup Series championship.
Today, Harvick and Childers are the longest-tenured active driver-crew chief pairing in the Cup Series garage, a 10-year partnership that has netted 37 points-paying wins.
“Rodney and I are pretty much the same age with very similar backgrounds, as far as racing goes. But we’re kind of opposites in that he’s very calm, cool and quiet, and I’m kind of rambunctious and full of excitement. That pairing has brought a lot of respect just because I know his demeanor, he knows my demeanor, and it’s a good balance in the middle,” Harvick said.
“We know each of us can do the job, and we believe in that and each other, and a lot of that comes down to conversations, being able to communicate. We communicate well, and that’s what makes a good pairing – being able to talk and communicate and put those conversations into action. And when you’re wrong, understanding when you’re wrong, and working through that and not have anybody’s feelings get hurt and start pointing fingers That’s what’s made it work.”
The command Harvick has shown behind the wheel and outside of the racecar was one of the main reasons why Tony Stewart, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, wanted Harvick on his race team.
“I competed against Kevin for a long time and I was so happy to finally have him a part of our race team,” said Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion who co-owns Stewart-Haas Racing with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas. “He’s incredibly reliable – consistent and calculated on the track with a drive to always be better. That’s what you want in a teammate. He knows what he needs to be successful, and his will to win helped elevate our entire company.”
Stewart retired as a NASCAR driver at the end of the 2016 season. His hope for Harvick’s final season is sanguine and straightforward.
“I want Kevin to savor every lap this season, to compete like hell and to take it all in. He’s made all of us at Stewart-Haas Racing incredibly proud and we want to make his last season his best season.”
Harvick’s final season kicks off with the non-points Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum Feb. 4-5 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before the official start of the 2023 campaign with the 65th annual Daytona 500 Feb. 19 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.