New season, new hope for Harvick

CONCORD, N.C. -- Kevin Harvick is a man with some big-money options. He sounds like a man who knows he's moving on.

Harvick holds all the cards in what likely is his final season at Richard Childress Racing. In some ways, life is good when you're viewed as a top free agent in NASCAR.

In other ways, it can get ugly. Feelings get hurt. Longtime relationships become strained. People take sides.

Harvick doesn't want that to happen. He doesn't want a bitter divorce from the organization that made him a Sprint Cup star.

"If it ends here, I want it to end peacefully," Harvick said Tuesday on the media tour. "That's my main goal. The bottom line is Richard Childress gave me a great opportunity to be a part of this sport. The last thing you want to do is throw mud in someone's face and be disrespectful."

Harvick knows a little bit about handling difficult situations with respect. He is the center of attention in NASCAR once again, as he was nine years ago from the first day he sat in a Cup car.

Harvick was chosen by Childress to replace the one man who was irreplaceable -- Dale Earnhardt.

That task was enormous, but Harvick handled it well. The car was changed from the famous black No. 3 to a white No. 29, but everyone knew it was Earnhardt's Chevy.

Harvick made it his own. He became an instant success when he won at Atlanta, three weeks after Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Harvick took the seat of NASCAR's biggest hero and made the most of it. And he cherishes those memories. He doesn't want to tarnish a partnership that changed his life.

Harsh words were said last summer by Childress and Harvick when rumors surfaced about the possibility of Harvick's getting out of the last year of his contract.

Childress had no intention of letting that happen. Harvick later accepted it during the worst season of his career.

RCR struggled and Harvick finished 19th in the standings, failing to win a race for the second consecutive year. It all but guaranteed Harvick would look elsewhere for his Cup future.

"But I want us to have fun this season, with racing and life, and make it a good year," Harvick said. "If it's like last year it won't be any fun. It was fun with the trucks and the Nationwide cars, but the Cup side was miserable. We don't need another miserable year."

RCR failed to place a driver in the Chase last year, but the organization showed a dramatic upswing in the final month of the season.

The question is, can RCR keep it going forward with one fewer car this season (three instead four) and one driver who probably is leaving?

"I feel we'll be fine because the whole organization has a positive vibe now," said RCR driver Clint Bowyer. "We can push each other to be better, and I think those issues will go away."

Not likely. The talk will grow until Harvick signs a new deal with someone. Speculation continues that he'll end up in a third car for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2011.

SHR is supplying a pit crew this season for the No. 71 Chevy that Bobby Labonte will drive. That could be a SHR developmental effort to get a crew ready for a third car next year.

"We've talked about it," SHR general manager Bobby Hutchens said Monday about adding a car. "It might be in our future if we feel it adds something to our program."

The problem for Harvick is that everyone is talking about 2011 before 2010 even begins.

Historically speaking, lame-duck drivers rarely do well in Cup. Harvick believes the No. 29 Chevy team can overcome the distractions.

"They've already been dealing with it from last season," Harvick said. "Those guys won't let down. I have 100 percent confidence in them. They are going to stand behind me.

"They are very experienced people and have been together for a long time. How it ends is how it ends, but we'll remain focused on what we need to focus on and not let the sideshow take over from what we need to do."

Officially, Childress said he hasn't given up on re-signing Harvick.

"That door is always open," Childress said Tuesday. "He's committed and we're committed to go out and get the job done. We owe it to Shell [the primary sponsor] to give them 100 percent and we will. I'd love to be on the podium with Kevin [as the 2010 Cup champion] in Las Vegas."

It may take that to keep him, but even a title might come too late.

Harvick sounds like a man who's moving on. Maybe it's time.

"The contract thing, it is what it is," Harvick said. "I'm not going to dwell on it. No matter how this all turns out, I owe a lot to RCR."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.