HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Long after the checkered flag fell at Phoenix last weekend, where Kevin Harvick's win earned him his first real shot at a NASCAR championship, he found a surprise visitor waiting in his motorhome.
Sitting on the couch was three-time champion Tony Stewart, playing the role of both friend and team owner. He explained to Harvick what to expect this week as he headed into Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Harvick is probably the favorite in a four-driver field to win the Sprint Cup title.
"He was the last person sitting in my motorhome and he said, 'Alright, here's how your week is going to go and here is what you are going to do and here's how you are going to do it,'" Harvick said. "He's been an owner, he's been a friend and he's been somebody I've been able to lean on over these last nine weeks."
It's not much different than 2012, when Stewart helped Harvick navigate the biggest decision of his career.
Harvick was in a rut at Richard Childress Racing, the organization that had signed him in 1999 to a Nationwide deal and put together a long-term plan that would move him to NASCAR's top series in 2002. But Dale Earnhardt's death in the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500 forced Childress to move Harvick up immediately, and he found himself driving Earnhardt's car as a 25-year-old under an enormous spotlight.
Although he won early, the ups-and-downs in performance at RCR were frustrating and Harvick found the organization could never quite get him close enough to the championship. He'd spent a dozen years with Childress, had one more season on his contract, and had to decide whether to dig in his heels with the only team he knew or to start over elsewhere.
Stewart promised Harvick if he moved to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, he'd help him win a championship.
"He was ready for a change," Stewart shrugged.
The bond is deep between Harvick and Stewart. Last week in victory lane, Stewart appeared to be crying when he greeted Harvick, who later revealed it was the first time he'd "ever seen Tony even a little bit emotional."
Part of it was the excitement of seeing Harvick one step closer to his goal, part of it was the relief during a difficult season for Stewart. It's the worst on the track in Stewart's 16-year career, and he's struggled personally since his sprint car struck and killed driver Kevin Ward Jr. on Aug. 9.
"Obviously he's been through a lot this year, and if we can be that one shining moment that makes his day better, that would be, for me — I just want to see my friend smile," Harvick said.
Harvick has thrived from the moment he first drove one of crew chief Rodney Childers' cars. The No. 4 Chevrolet was among the fastest on the track in a series-wide December test and Harvick and Childers have not slowed down since. The chemistry was instant and helped the duo feel comfortable in stepping into a leadership role at SHR; it also kept them from faltering when Stewart was away from the team following Ward's death.
Harvick, who will race Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and former SHR driver Ryan Newman in the finale, has four wins this season. Two of them — at Charlotte and Phoenix — earned him automatic berths in the next round of the Chase.
He has a career-high eight poles, and his 2,083 laps led are easily the most in the series. There's not a team in the garage that doesn't believe that Harvick's win total would be at least doubled if not for late-race setbacks.
When it became clear that his pit crew wasn't strong enough to guarantee an error-free, 10-race Chase, Stewart gave Harvick the crew that had helped Stewart to the 2011 championship. Every part of the last 11 months has validated the decision Harvick and his wife, DeLana, made two years ago.
"I am as happy as I've ever been," Harvick said. "In 2012, we made some pretty big decisions to race in 2014, and you just never know how those things are going to pan out. I am as proud of the situation and the life decisions that DeLana and I made to get to this point. To see them be as successful as they have been, it's been pretty rewarding."
The same goes for Stewart, who marvels at the first season Harvick has put together at SHR and the determination that team has shown through three rounds of the new elimination-format Chase.
"You know how hard it is to get here, especially with the intensity we've seen in the Chase this year," Stewart said. "And here we are with a shot to win this championship. To be a part of this opportunity with him, to do it with a good friend, is really special because this is something I really want for him."