Move to Ford, last year's pit crew switch motivate Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick has his work cut out for him this year, and he's looking forward to it. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kevin Harvick gets asked all the time about what will happen if Stewart-Haas Racing has problems in its switch from Chevrolet to Ford.

He knows reality. They will have problems this year because of the switch. And he's going to like having problems.

Huh? Listen to Harvick and the mental mind games he plays on himself appear to require that SHR has problems.

"I don't think we anticipate bumps," Harvick said. "We know there are going to be bumps. ... As long as everybody doesn't fool themselves in thinking everything is going to be perfect, it's going to be a very productive process."

Speaking in matter-of-fact tones, Harvick's words indicate he has himself ready for a fight. Just the way he likes it.

Maybe the team, if things do go perfect, should just pretend that it's not. Harvick has 12 victories and 54 top-5s in the last three years, and he's ready for another fight.

"I always tell people, you have to reach out and find something to motivate yourself," Harvick said. "This definitely motivates me in order to get it to the point where it's right. ... It enthuses me just because there's change.

"There's something else to work on now that's challenging. I love those challenges."

The last three years show just that. He moved from Richard Childress Racing despite a string of third-place finishes in the standings to Stewart-Haas Racing and promptly proved that decision a wise one as he won the title in 2014.

For anyone who thought that was a fluke, he nearly repeated in 2015. And then came 2016, during which Harvick carried a chip on his shoulder to prove that the pending manufacturer change wouldn't hinder his performance. He nearly made it into the championship round.

At Atlanta in just the second race last year, Harvick didn't appear to embrace any challenge. Reporters virtually stood nearby a bathroom waiting for him to come out so they could ask about the announced switch from Chevrolet to Ford.

Was he mad? Would he leave? Is he signed for next year? If not, should he be considered a free agent?

Harvick at first avoided reporters but relented to a talk-and-walk with quick answers. That didn't stop all the talk that he felt betrayed by he move, that he would entertain an offer from Hendrick Motorsports. Maybe Harvick didn't have any anger at all, but just found something to funnel into his body to motivate him.

"There was never anything where there was any ill will or I didn't know what was going on," Harvick says now. "I sat back for months with a new contract and knew where some of the talks were going. I heard all the [Hendrick] car rumors and everything that was going out of control -- if you can only tell these people what was going on, it was almost humorous."

The 2014 Cup champion might have a strange view of humor. The intensity he brings when facing these challenges that he creates or are thrust upon him appears as something to relish and fight at the same time.

Take his pit crew for instance. The team made changes last year with 11 races left after Harvick's harsh criticism -- two years after Harvick's public criticism resulted in a swap of pit crews for Harvick and Tony Stewart. In some ways, that was just another challenge and one he has had before.

"We have thick skin and understand that and we're going to address [issues] and take the heat," Harvick said. "And both times we've done that, the situation has fixed itself and have gotten better and it became a non-story."

Pit crew performance could play a bigger role this year with the new points system. An early mistake could cost a driver more than in the past. Harvick, obviously known to get angry over pit-crew mistakes, doesn't appear worried.

Embrace the challenge.

"We couldn't have put them in a more pressure situation than when we brought them in and they progressively got better from where they started," Harvick said. "By the last race, they kicked everybody's butt on pit road. We put a lot of emphasis on that. having all those guys back is going to be a huge plus for us and having that storm calm down.

"But that's what we do. That's what they do. They've been in those pressure situations, they've performed in those pressure situations and every pit stop is full of pressure for those guys no matter what's on the table."

More embracing. More fight:

"The expectations are to go out and lead laps and run up front and win segments and try to put yourself in position to win a race and win a championship," Harvick said. "Those expectations don't change and we've been very consistent in those expectations whether it be from ourselves in the car, on pit road and when those things aren't happening, we address those things.

"Sure they obviously are more public. Nobody covered the great performances that they had at the end of the year and gave them props for it."

Harvick has pretty simple expectations for 2017 in the first year with Ford: The expectations will have the engineers needing time to adjust because when they turn on their computers, they have new software and new programs. They don't use the same software as Penske or Roush Fenway, so they can't rely on other Ford teams for that type of help.

At the test at Phoenix a couple weeks ago, the team spent much of the time just learning the fluid levels and the new software on the laptops outside the car.

"It has a different body and a different engine in it, but it acts exactly the same and drives the same -- you can't really tell any difference," Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers said.

Childers estimates it could take months for the team to figure out its simulation programs and knowing what adjustments will do at a specific race track.

"The hardest thing is the engineers [need] to learn the new software and understand where the plusses and minuses are," Harvick said. "In order to do that, you have to go to the race track and you have to race and you have to use these tools and find the flaws.

"It takes longer to find things in the database because you don't know what tab to look on."

If Harvick starves for challenges, he also might have one in the chassis department. The team now builds all its own chassis. It still has some Hendrick chassis that it reskinned but from now on, it's SHR people working with SHR people -- no more collaboration, which albeit had dwindled in the last year, with Hendrick Motorsports.

"We've pushed the chassis side of things a lot over the past three years in advancing what we had," Harvick said. "We pushed the chassis things within our own walls over the past year. The most exciting part is the things that you push aren't going to wind up on somebody else's car."

There's Harvick again, being a little feisty.

"[This manufacturer move] was so much bigger than me," Harvick said. "As you look at something like this, I'm a planner, so my biggest thing is how are you going to make all this work happen in a timely manner and how are we going to have a plan for it to transition and I think they have done a really good job with that.

"I'm not naive enough to think there's not going to be some bumps in the road. I want to be a part of growing things and pushing things forward. This is an opportunity for us. You have had to uncover everything in the company because nothing is the same."

Ford will try to make the move as smooth as possible.

"When we decided to partner up with Stewart-Haas, he [Harvick] was one that was brought in early in the discussion to make sure that we understood his perspective on things," said Ford Racing director Dave Pericak. "It's invaluable to have someone like Kevin, a championship-level driver, to add to the efforts that we have going on here. ... The bumps in the road, I would say that we're doing everything in our power to try to minimize those."

That's a good idea. Just maybe not minimize them too much. If you understand Harvick's perspective, you'd know why.

"In order to get our company and being part of getting our company balanced and competitive and doing the things that it takes -- to me that is a new challenge," Harvick said. "It's like when I switched from RCR to Stewart-Haas Racing. It could have gone both sides of the fence whether it was going to be better or worse.

"This is just another scenario. ... I have to reach out and find those things to motivate me."