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LAS VEGAS – Two years ago, Kevin Harvick was evaluating his life. He and his wife, DeLana, had welcomed a son, their only child. They'd sold their race team and began to prioritize what really mattered to their growing family.
Harvick wanted two things: to be happy, and to race for championships.
So he took a gamble and left Richard Childress Racing, the only NASCAR team he'd ever known, and agreed to drive for good friend Tony Stewart in 2014.
Now, he is the new Sprint Cup champion, with his family, Stewart and a dedicated crew chief helping him reach racing's summit. Harvick's first career Cup title was celebrated Friday night at NASCAR's annual season-ending awards ceremony.
The weeklong celebration in Las Vegas gave Harvick a chance to again reflect on the decisions that got him to the head table at Wynn Las Vegas.
"That evaluation of our lives, my job falls into that," Harvick said this week. "DeLana and I, since we knew we were going to have Keelan, we had always talked about 'What it's going to take to be great parents?' One of those things in that category is 'What is it going to take to make you happiest at work?'
"We knew that I wasn't over-the-top excited about everything that I was dealing with at that particular time."
In courting Harvick, the driver signed by Richard Childress and then thrust into the firestorm when he was given Dale Earnhardt's team one week after the seven-time champion's fatal accident in the 2001 Daytona 500, Stewart promised his friend he could win a championship at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Stewart was coming off his own 2011 title for SHR when discussions began with Harvick. With more than a year left on his contract, Harvick decided to make the leap. He waited out one final season on his deal with RCR, where he'd spent 13 years of his NASCAR career but simply tired of the ebbs and flows of an inconsistent race team.
By figuring out his 2014 plans so early, Harvick had almost a year to find a crew chief he believed would guide him to that coveted Cup championship. He set his sights on Rodney Childers, who was content at Michael Waltrip Racing even if that organization wasn't championship caliber.
But Harvick wanted Childers — badly — and wouldn't give up his recruiting.
"It was a lot of conversations," Harvick said. "He's one of those guys that just has to have that feeling of being comfortable and knowing that he's dotted all his I's and crossed all his T's. It's still business for him, and he has to support his family, and the decisions that he made will affect his life for the next few years and the contract that he was signing.
"It definitely has been a lot of big decisions for really everybody on our team, and the team itself made the commitment to me to get everything started."
It took a meeting between Childers and team co-owner Stewart to sway Childers' decision. Stewart won't reveal what he said in that meeting.
"These are combinations that are just as valuable as marriages, so to have Kevin have somebody that he really wanted, it's my job to seal the deal," said Stewart, who recognized during that meeting why Harvick so badly wanted Childers.
"Getting a chance to spend that time with Rodney, I saw what Kevin was seeing. Those are meetings and those are steps that are necessary to make sure you are putting that right package and chemistry together."
Still, Childers had no prior relationship with Harvick and knew only the reputation of a hot-headed driver who is tough on his crews.
"All I knew was a reputation, what other people had said. I'd never even had a conversation with him before, I'd never carried on a conversation with DeLana or anybody," Childers said. "In the beginning, it was all I could think about: 'Is he going to eat me up? Is he going to yell at me?' But the thing I've learned with him is he's none of those things that everybody says. Nobody has a clue who he really is."
What Childers learned about Harvick was that, at 38 years old, with a young son now helping him find some balance, he was a driver committed to doing whatever it took to win a championship. With Childers building the team from scratch, relentlessly working the crew to build a new fleet of cars, Harvick flipped a switch and once again found passion in his job.
"I needed to make a change and get something that rejuvenated me to get up in the morning and go to the shop and go to work and really take the time to be as good as I can," he said.
They were good from their first on-track session and led the series with eight poles and 2,137 laps led.
But under a revised elimination-style format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Harvick and the No. 4 team had to step up and deliver. They succeeded with victories in the final two races of the season.
Now, with the entire industry on hand to celebrate their success, Harvick and Childers are finally enjoying their achievement.
"Being able to fulfill your lifelong dream is something that a lot of people can't really say that they've ever done," Harvick said.