CHARLOTTE, N.C. - They called him ""Happy Harvick' at the start of his NASCAR career, when success came so easy that Kevin Harvick had a seemingly perpetual smile.
It's been quite some time since the nickname fit.
Harvick's been rather unhappy of late and struggling through the worst slump of his career - a winless streak that dates back 90 points races, to the 2007 season-opening Daytona 500. It's so bad that his name has been thrown into the rumor mill, with mounting speculation that he's trying to weasel his way out of Richard Childress Racing.
He's under contract to Childress through next season, as is sponsor Shell-Pennzoil, and the team owner felt the need last week to stress that both will be back with the No. 29 Chevrolet in 2010. Like the dreaded vote of confidence that generally precedes a firing,
Childress' sharply worded statement could very well mean Harvick is on the move.
Harvick is saying very little publicly, which only feeds the rumors. He's smart, calculating and sometimes manipulative, and over the course of his career, he's never held back when voicing his displeasure on a variety of topics.
Because nothing sets him off quite like poor performance, the whole world has been waiting for him to explode as he's drifted out of contention for the Chase for the championship. Instead, he's said next to nothing, even biting his tongue when his Kevin Harvick Inc. team accidentally ran him out of gas during Saturday night's Nationwide Series race in St. Louis. It relegated a potentially race-winning car - he led 105 of the 200 laps - to a 17th-place finish.
Harvick of old would have publicly blasted his team, and maybe even fired an employee or two. And on the Cup side, where he's 25th in points and has led just nine laps all year, he'd be screaming bloody murder about the pathetic RCR performance this season.
He admitted last month at Sonoma that this has been his ""worst year that I've ever had racing, period,' but declined to speculate on how to fix it. He told The Associated Press any problems are companywide at RCR - and he's right, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton are both off a tick this season, while Casey Mears has sputtered in his first year with the team - but directed any performance issues to Childress.
""It's not my job to figure out what is wrong. You give all the input that you can back, and then it's out of my department,' Harvick told the AP. ""Ask Richard what's wrong. He's the only one who can answer this.'
Childress is the first to admit his team is struggling, and in April he fell back on one of his standard quick-fix ideas, swapping the entire crews of Harvick and Mears. It had worked for Childress two previous times before, when he successfully swapped crews in 1998 for the late Dale Earnhardt and Mike Skinner, then again with Harvick and Robby Gordon.
That 2002 swap came during a rebuilding period for RCR, which was still putting itself back together a year after Earnhardt's fatal accident. It was one of the many dips in performance Harvick has weathered, and he's indicated he's not willing to suffer through another rebuild.
""There's just a lot of scenarios that you hope play out right, and you just wait and see how it all plays out,' he said with a sly smile.
Beyond that, he wouldn't bite, furthering the belief that Harvick has an ace in the hole he's waiting to play.
But what could it be that Harvick has in the works?
There was speculation he could be headed to Stewart-Haas Racing as an expanded third entry, but that would require sponsorship, and Stewart has yet to sell off Ryan Newman's current season. If Harvick is hoping to take Shell with him to a new home, the company will likely have a hard fight with Childress to move with a year left on its contract.
Harvick could be trying to move his own race team up to the Cup level, where he could potentially regain any General Motors support that he lost when Chapter 11 restructuring forced the automaker to drastically cut funding to the Nationwide and Truck Series programs. KHI, formed in 2002, only competes at the lower two levels with a variety of different drivers.
Harvick's never expressed an overwhelming desire to race his own stuff at the Cup level, so an imminent move in that direction seems unlikely.
It's possible he's shopping himself to other race teams, but the whole GM hook probably clouds that picture. Because of his longtime alliance to Chevrolet, he can't just easily sign with a team that uses Chrysler, Ford or Toyota. Harvick could be angling for a deal for a manufacturer deal for KHI.