Kevin Harvick is known as "Happy," a nickname however facetiously acquired that aptly describes him at the moment. With two Sprint Cup Series wins this season, he's locked into the Chase, and with five second-place finishes — including Sunday at Michigan — he is running consistently well for his new team, Stewart-Haas Racing.
Nevertheless, Harvick is in a position unique among NASCAR drivers for his proximity to tragedy. Tony Stewart, whose car struck and killed a competitor recently in a sprint-car race, is a friend and team co-owner.
Harvick's entry to the highest level of NASCAR in 2001 came when he succeeded Dale Earnhardt in the Goodwrench Chevrolet following Earnhardt's fatal crash in the Daytona 500. Then, as now, Harvick has raced well amid the tumult.
Following Earnhardt's death, Harvick set a Cup record by winning in just his third career start. A week after Stewart's misfortune, Harvick finished second at Michigan.
Harvick shared his perspective of those two events Wednesday while at Fort Eustis. He visited troops of the 7th Transportation and 128th Aviation brigades to thank them for their service and promote the Sept. 6 Cup race at Richmond International Raceway.
"They're obviously drastically different scenarios that are somewhat the same," Harvick said of Earnhardt and Stewart. "For us, it's about staying focused on the task at hand, and letting Tony do what he needs to do to make sure he does all he can do to get himself where he needs to be.
"I think as we go to the racetrack every week right now, everybody's kind of rallied around each other to do everything they can to be as good as we can be. That's what (Stewart) would expect us to do."
Harvick has more than lived up to expectations in his first season at Stewart-Haas after moving from Richard Childress Racing. His wins at Phoenix and Darlington are more than the combined one of teammates Stewart, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick.
"With our car we were able to put the key personnel in place right off the bat with (crew chief) Rodney Childers," Harvick said. "Rodney has put together a great team, and we have a lot of resources to draw from within SHR.
"Winning early was a positive for our team and knowing we didn't have to worry about points. Having that win, and the way the (win and you're into the Chase) process is, really allowed us to build our team and not have to worry about the points."
Harvick said that gives him the freedom to race differently and go for wins, while his team is able to prepare his cars for the early Chase races. For those not in his fortunate position — in need of a win or one of the top non-winning spots in the standings — he thinks the Cup race at Richmond could be a wild ride.
"It's definitely going to be an interesting 'into the Chase,' " Harvick said. "The last Chase (qualifying) race has been pretty interesting the past few years, but knowing a win will absolutely get you into the Chase is different than it's been in the past.
"The risk versus reward is much bigger on the reward side than it has been in the past. That's the way racing is supposed to be. The format was designed to keep the intensity level as high as possible."
And if a driver has to push aside another in the final laps to earn that final spot into the 16-driver Chase?
"'Ask for forgiveness later' will probably be the motto of most people involved in that particular situation," Harvick said. "I think as you look at everybody, they're going to have that mentality to do whatever you have to do to get into the Chase."
Harvick's visit to Fort Eustis included time in the seat of an AH-64 Apache Helicopter simulator, an experience he likened to a NASCAR simulator. Then he thanked about 75 members of the 128th Aviation Brigade for their service.
"NASCAR in the sports world is probably the biggest supporter of our military." he said. "We couldn't be more thankful for what they do.
"They allow us to live our lives as we do, and there's a lot of sacrifices that are made for us to do that."
The troops reciprocated that gratitude.
"NASCAR has always been about giving back," said Neil Smith, a staff sergeant with the 1st Battalion 210th Aviation Regiment, who trains mechanics to maintain the Apaches. "I think his being here means a lot to the young guys."
And to RIR.
"The connection in our sport to the military is so deep," RIR President Dennis Bickmeier said. "Here in Virginia, where we have so many bases to take advantage of an opportunity to have a driver come in and share experiences with members of the military, is invaluable all-around."
For his part, Harvick was blown away by the hardware on display in the hangar, including 14 Apaches worth hundreds of millions.
"We're fortunate to have some pretty good owners that give us everything we need with a lot of equipment," he said. "But I think we're outnumbered here."
O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.