NASCAR

New sponsor, new image for Harvick

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TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP)

Kevin Harvick has been trying to form his own identity on the racetrack since the first day he sat in the driver's seat previously occupied by Dale Earnhardt.

Kevin Harvick has been trying to form his own identity on the racetrack since the first day he sat in the driver's seat previously occupied by Dale Earnhardt. When Earnhardt, NASCAR's most famous driver, died in a crash during the season-opening Daytona 500 in 2001, Harvick was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Instead of spending that season learning his trade in the Busch Series, with a few Cup races mixed in for experience, the youngster wound up running both series full-time the rest of the season. Team owner Richard Childress tried to lessen the burden on Harvick, changing the car number from Earnhardt's trademark No. 3 to No. 29, and repeatedly saying that his new driver was not trying to replace Earnhardt but just driving in his stead. But, over the years, fans have continued to identify Harvick's Richard Childress Racing entry with Earnhardt, especially since the car still carries the GM Goodwrench logos that The Intimidator's cars had sported since 1983. That will change next season, with Shell Oil replacing GM Goodwrench as the primary sponsor on Harvick's car. The announcement was made Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.

"I think it is a great opportunity for myself to establish something from ground zero. ... I think it is a great opportunity to kind of establish my own identity in the No. 29 car and move forward with the Shell brand on board," Harvick said. Childress, Earnhardt's boss and close friend, said he doesn't feel like changing sponsors is breaking the final link on that car to Earnhardt, as some people have suggested. "That will be around for many, many years to come, way past when I and a lot of us are around," Childress said. "Times change, the sport changes, business changes, there are decisions that have to be made that we have to move forward in life with." WELCOME JUAN PABLO: Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon once swapped cars with Juan Pablo Montoya for an exhibition run. The time the stock car star and the Formula One racer spent in each other's cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was brief and told them little about how they would fare in a race. But, now, Montoya has left F1 behind and is taking aim at competing with Gordon and the rest of the Cup drivers for championships. He got off to a solid start Friday at Talladega with a third-place finish in a 250-mile ARCA race, his stock car debut. Montoya even managed to maintain control of his car and come back through the field after another driver slammed into his right-side door. "You can watch all you want from the top of the truck and on TV and, until you get out there and recognize it and feel it, you don't realize what you're capable of doing and what the cars are really doing when you're out there," Gordon said. He said racing on Talladega's fast and frightening 2.66-mile oval was good for Montoya, but it has little to do with most of the other tracks he will face in NASCAR. "An ARCA race at Talladega is just kind of an introduction," Gordon said. "It's a whole lot different when you start going to Bristol and Martinsville and New Hampshire and then the 1.5-mile tracks. "This was a good experience for him. If he had come out of that race with a win there would have been a tremendous amount of pressure on him that I don't think even he wants. It couldn't have gone much better for him the first time out." NO FUN: A year ago, Mark Martin saw his hopes for a Cup championship all but blink out when he got caught up in a multicar crash just 19 laps into the UAW-Ford 500. He fell from fourth place to ninth in the standings and never got back into the title hunt. That was no surprise to Martin, who liked racing at Talladega a whole lot more before the late '80s, when NASCAR began using carburetor restrictor plates to inhibit the speeds. "I always liked Talladega," said Martin, who goes into Sunday's race third in the standings, trailing series leader Jeff Burton by 70 points. "It was easier to get around than Daytona and I just didn't find it nearly as intimidating. "In the beginning, we didn't have restrictor plates and handling mattered. Heck, I remember people spinning out here - on their own. It was just a big ol' racetrack that really tested your skills." No more, Martin said. "The only thing I don't like about it now is that the cars are just going too slow and they are too packed up," Martin said. "Back when they didn't get in such big packs and when handling was a big factor, it was just a lot more fun for the race car driver. "The frustrating part about it (now) is that your cars mean more than you do. No matter how hard you try, you can't help the team make the car very much better. That's not the case at unrestricted race tracks. The car doesn't mean more than you and you can help the team make the car better." SPARK PLUGS: Saturday's qualifying for the Cup race took just over three hours. Dale Jarrett, who finished second to rookie teammate David Gilliland, joked about it, saying, "It still is Saturday, right? There have been entire college football games played since we started." ... The last driver to win at Talladega from the pole was Bobby Labonte in the spring of 1998.

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