A day after the race on the Daytona Road Course in 2020, then-rookie Christopher Bell had a phone call to make.
To Kevin Harvick.
One of the most intimidating names in NASCAR.
“I got into the back of him and spun him out,” Bell recalled of that August 2020 day. “I had to call him the next day because I didn’t get to see him after the race.”
By then, Harvick had evolved out of the young, brash, never-met-a-fight-he-didn’t-mind guy he’d so long been known to be. He was a father of two. A husband for nearly two decades. He was an all-time great driver at the peak of his powers that season — and he’d soon become one of the most respected drivers off the track, a guy known for taking youngins under his wing, mentoring them, standing up for all drivers and pushing the sport forward when necessary.
But Bell, admittedly, was still a bit scared, he can admit with a laugh now: “I was shaking because I was so nervous.”
If you asked the entire NASCAR Cup Series field, chances are a driver will relay a story like this about Harvick, who is embarking on the final playoff run of his illustrious career Sunday evening at Darlington Raceway before retiring at the end of the 2023 season.
They’ll likely say something else, too — something that a young Harvick would’ve never imagined or even wanted.
They wish the best for him in his final playoff run.
“I would love for Kevin Harvick to finish second in a championship,” Bell said on Thursday, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “Everyone wants to see a guy like that go out on top. … He went from this fiery competitor who isn’t afraid to tell you how stupid you are to now the leader of the group who kind of coaches the young guys up. He’s someone I definitely strive to be like, for sure.”
Forgive Harvick, 47 and the oldest driver in Cup, if he’s still getting used to praise like that from his competition. This is the same driver who robbed victories from drivers as a rookie, who once called out Dale Earnhardt Jr. for “stunting the growth of NASCAR,” who once pushed Brad Keselowski into Jeff Gordon that spawned a brawl at Texas Motor Speedway — a moment Harvick would later call one of the most embarrassing of his career.
He was the driver who became the face of a NASCAR generation the second he made his Cup debut — the generation of life after Dale Earnhardt — and Harvick, in many ways, embodied the take-no-prisoners spirit of his predecessor.
By his own admission, which he shared with a laugh on Thursday during NASCAR’s annual playoff media day in the Charlotte Convention Center: “In the beginning, I didn’t really care what they thought.”
“In fact, I wanted them to not like me more than anything,” Harvick continued. “I wanted them to think about me all the time, when I was in front of them, when I was behind them, when I walked into the room. I wanted them to think that I was going to say something, do something.
“And I think as we’ve gone through the years, and this is a whole new generation of guys, it’s been very enjoyable to get to know a lot of them, and be able to have some of them come to you and ask questions and learn what you did right and what you did wrong, whatever the case may be.
“You become more of a mentor instead of trying to cut their throat on a weekly basis.”
Other drivers have noticed that evolution, too.
Harvick’s recent unrelenting outspokenness on issues like driver safety — particularly in the earliest days of the Next Gen car, which saw concussions and in-car fires — caught the attention and appreciation of a bunch of drivers, including Ford teammate Michael McDowell.
“He’s been vocal, he’s been controversial,” McDowell said. “He’s done a lot of things that I feel like have helped move the sport forward and along. And I think that, what I’ll remember the last four or five years, is how hard he’s pushed back to make sure that things are getting done to make racing safer and our racecars safer.
“And also just watching him for me really seeing him change as a person and overall demeanor with family and kids. He’s gone more into the shepherding role, really with all the drivers, and really with some of the sport. Where in the early days, he was a guy at least for me was unapproachable, so he was so full of fire. Seeing the other side has been neat.”
Kyle Busch agrees.
“Him and I didn’t get along for a bit there,” said Busch, who now runs for Richard Childress Racing, the same organization Harvick got his Cup start at. “But you know, it’s come a long way, come full circle, where we talk a lot now, our kids are racing with each other and things. But to me, him being a team owner in the sport and understanding that, being a part of that for a long time in the Truck and Xfinity program that he had. And then going over to SHR, winning a championship, being with a different group of people, being in a different place — it changed him a lot.”
A lot has happened with Harvick even in the past 12 months. The driver of the No. 4 car, with over 60 Cup wins and a Cup championship to his name, announced his retirement. He bought an ownership stake into the CARS Tour, paving a brighter future for grassroots short-track racing everywhere. He introduced his successor in Josh Berry. He drove the No. 29 car at North Wilkesboro Speedway to pay homeage to his rookie season.
He checked in on his teammate Ryan Preece every day after a gnarly accident at Daytona and rehashed old concerns about NASCAR safety, like he’s recently done. He somehow pointed his way into the playoffs despite the rest of his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates struggling — showing that grit and execution and “a good plan” still triumphs in a sport like this.
And now he’s preparing for a final act — something his competitors hope will go smoothly just because of the man Harvick has become.
“I would say that it would be cool to see Kevin score a win in his final year,” Busch said.
Harvick’s competitor then smiled: “Right now, it’s playoff time, so that would obviously bump him on to the next round, and I don’t want that. But it would be a sentimental moment, for sure.”