- Terry Blount, ESPN Staff Writer
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WELCOME, N.C. -- Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress said so many nice things about each other Monday night that they almost had me believing this lame-duck thing can work.
Both men said all the right things during the media tour stop at Richard Childress Racing headquarters. I don't doubt their sincerity.
But any divorce, whether it's a husband and wife or a driver and a team owner, is painful. And this divorce will take a full season to finalize.
Harvick is moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, leaving an organization where he spent the past 14 years. He's also leaving a car that became an iconic symbol of NASCAR greatness.
Harvick replaced seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt the week after Earnhardt was killed in the Daytona 500. That was 12 years ago. Harvick has carried that banner proudly, finishing in the top 10 of the standings eight times.
"It's been a great journey," Harvick said. "My first race here [at RCR] was October of 1999. We've won Nationwide championships [2001 and 2006] and 19 Cup races. But sometimes you just need a change of pace to keep the enthusiasm where it needs to be. That's kind of where I was."
Now comes the hard part. Can two proud men, both of whom are known for their volatility at times, get through an entire season successfully before going their separate ways?
"We'll make it," Childress said. "It's going to be tough, but we both have committed to make this a positive ending. We'll get along fine. Kevin and I have had our disagreements, as I've had with a lot of drivers. But we'll get through this year."
Harvick firmly believes that's true. He knows most people think he has a rough season ahead in 2013, but he is determined to take the high road.
"I look at this as a character-building year," Harvick said. "I want to go out and have fun and leave this place, hopefully, as good as it was when I got here, or better. That's the way you approach it. I have a lot of friends here and I want it to stay that way."
Historically speaking, lame-duck situations rarely go well in NASCAR. Team members start worrying about the future instead of concentrating on the present. People have different agendas and sometimes say the wrong thing. Feelings get hurt. Mistakes are made.
But the past two seasons have shown a better side to lame-duck issues. Tony Stewart won the 2011 Cup title with crew chief Darian Grubb, who knew he wasn't returning to the No. 14 Chevy when he guided the team to its five-victory Chase run.
Brad Keselowski won the 2012 title with a manufacturer (Dodge) that was leaving the sport. And Matt Kenseth raced well in the second half of 2012 after everyone learned he was leaving Roush Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013.
Harvick has taken advice from Kenseth about how to handle this season.
"I talked to him about a few situations," Harvick said. "He told me that you know you are going to be asked these questions a lot, so from a mental standpoint, you can't get frustrated by it.
"He also said these guys are looking to build their company for the future, so you're going to have to suck it up in a few situations and do what's right for everybody to keep the performance on track."
All true, but easier said than done. Harvick is taking it to heart. He also is spending a lot of time with his No. 29 Chevy crew.
"It's all in what you make of it," Harvick said. "I've been around my team a lot lately. Those guys don't care what anybody thinks upstairs. They couldn't care less about what's going to happen. They just want to win races. The bottom line is we're all getting paid to do a job and represent these sponsors the best we can."
Budweiser is the major sponsor on the 29 car. Childress said he has no idea what Bud will do after this season. But 2013 is all that matters for the moment, and Childress doesn't want Harvick to leave on bad terms.
"I want him to leave on a high note," Childress said. "I want to have a long-term friendship with Kevin after this is over. I've done that with other drivers in the past. Life's too short to keep carrying things on."
Harvick and Childress have talked, but they keep it strictly business.
"We talk about race cars," Harvick said. "We don't talk about feelings. We talk about performance and we talk about the way things need to go on the track to win races. That's really all we've talked about."
Childress was angry when the news broke late last season that Harvick was leaving in 2014. It appeared to catch Childress by surprise, which he said is not true. Childress was upset the story came out before the end of the season. That's old news now.
Kevin will do well over at Stewart-Haas. I think he and Tony will have a good relationship. And RCR will keep going and moving forward. We'll see how it comes out.
”-- Richard Childress
"Kevin will do well over at Stewart-Haas," Childress said. "I think he and Tony will have a good relationship. And RCR will keep going and moving forward. We'll see how it comes out."
Harvick has yet to admit he's going to SHR, although he doesn't deny it. He's 37 and a new father. Harvick wants to win a Cup championship. He probably feels racing for one of his closest friends is his best chance to do it.
However, Harvick wants to walk out of RCR with his head held high.
"I have a lot of respect for Richard and this organization," Harvick said. "We've had a great time together. You don't want to leave a black mark going out. You want to go out with class. We're racers and we want to win. We will work as hard as we can to achieve that."
Whether that happens may depend of how much RCR can improve, regardless of Harvick's lame-duck status. The organization took a step backward in 2012. Jeff Burton and Paul Menard were winless. Harvick didn't win until the Phoenix race in November.
"Last year wasn't very good," Harvick said. "But we made something out of it by making the Chase and getting back to Victory Lane. With [crew chief] Gil Martin coming back at the end of the year, we had a lot of consistent finishes. So it's something to build on."
Harvick is building it for the next man, possibly Austin Dillon, Childress' grandson. Dillon is expected to move from the Nationwide Series to Cup in 2014.
And when he does, the legendary No. 3 of Dale Earnhardt may return to the Cup team.
For now, it's all about making the most of a difficult situation. Going out with a Chase spot would be a respectable ending.
"I don't think this team or anybody here has anything to prove," Harvick said. "The biggest thing to prove this year is who we are as people."
Watching him talk about this year, it's clear Harvick means what he says. Listening to him, I almost believe he could make this a special season.
10dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information