Harvick embraces Earnhardt legacy

Kevin and DeLana Harvick were in bed, ready to sleep, when ‘the call’ came.

Just one day earlier, NASCAR had lost Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Richard Childress had lost his best friend. The fans had lost their last stock-car hero.

And Harvick’s life would never be the same.

“Richard (Childress) called and asked me to come to the office, which was five minutes away from where I was,” Harvick said. “I went to the office; it was Richard and (RCR employees) Bobby Hutchens, Kevin Hamlin and that was it. They asked me, ‘Do you want to drive the car?’

“It was probably 9 o’clock or something. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was dark, and I drove to the shop and walked in the office and Kevin Hamlin had a bottle of Jack Daniels and Richard sat behind his desk and they said, ‘We want you to drive the car. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to — we’ll get Rick Mast to drive the car.’ That was how it all went down.”

Now Harvick’s racing life has gone full circle — admittedly backwards, but for the better. Sunday he will battle Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. With Harvick currently third in the points standings, just 46 points behind Hamlin, it’s the first legitimate shot that Richard Childress Racing has had at winning the title since Earnhardt passed nearly 10 years ago — a time when Earnhardt was the favorite to win his eighth championship and the seventh Cup title for RCR.

The week that followed Earnhardt’s passing was equally memorable for Harvick. He vividly recalls that cold, wet and dismal February day at Rockingham when a news conference was held. He remembers his conversation with Dale Earnhardt Jr,. prior to the presser, missing Nationwide Series practice, the TV trucks from national outlets surrounding the big white tent, flash bulbs blinking and reporters hanging on his every word.

After finishing a respectable 14th in his Cup debut at Rockingham, Harvick and then DeLana Linville flew to Las Vegas where they were married that Wednesday. Harvick picked up the pace with an eighth-place finish at Vegas, then won his first NASCAR Cup race the following week in Atlanta — but the experience is lost from his memory.

While the victory was cathartic for Richard Childress Racing and so many Earnhardt fans, it was the start of a very dark period for Harvick.

“In those two weeks, it was such an emotional roller coaster and such a life-changing experience that it just spiraled out of control for a whole couple years,” Harvick said. “Didn’t have time to prepare for how much pressure was really going to be leading up to that point, but as you got into the situation, the pressure became a tremendous amount bigger than anything you could have ever imagined because me, personally, I was 25 years old and having fun, racing the Nationwide Series cars and just came out of trucks, doing my own thing in Late Models, and the next thing you know you’re in the biggest thing that ever happened to the sport. I watched it, but until you’re in the middle of it, you just don’t realize all the things that come at you.

“I think those first two years prepared me more as a person than you could ever ask in your rookie year because you have no choice if you want to survive other than to adjust to the situation that you’re in and figure out how to make it work. It taught me about time management, it taught me about how to deal with people and the press, not that I’m getting good at it, but you still have to deal with it. It’s just a part of what you do, so it was a crash course in a lot of things."

Despite running just 35 races that season, Harvick finished a remarkable ninth in the points standings. Many rookies are allowed to race off the radar, to make technical mistakes on the track and faux pas in media settings, but Harvick never enjoyed that luxury. The pressure from Earnhardt fans, sponsors and himself continued to build.

Harvick acknowledges that in 2002, “it all came crashing down.”

“I wanted to change the color of the car, I wanted new sponsors, he wore a white suit and I wanted a black suit, I wanted zero to do (with him),” Harvick said. “As you step back and you get a little bit older, and you really start listening and you really start understanding that people aren’t trying to make you into him, it’s just a part of our company that you have to be comfortable with. I’ve gotten comfortable with that. I think it’s a very important part of our sport, not just RCR in general.”

Legions of Earnhardt fans were lost. Some fans naturally gravitated to Dale Earnhardt Jr. Others remained with Richard Childress Racing. And many of the original Intimidator followers aligned with Harvick throughout the last decade, through the ups and downs of reinventing the No. 3 Chevrolet into the No. 29.

But expecting Harvick to pick up where Earnhardt left off — at the top of his game — was an impossible demand. While Harvick fit the mold of the typical RCR racer, it would take years for him to grow into a championship contender at the Cup level.

DeLana Harvick has been alongside her husband for the entire NASCAR journey. She has watched Harvick mature through the development of his own racing organization, Kevin Harvick Inc., and comprehends the complexities from all sides of the business.

“I think when Kevin came into the sport, I don’t think people really took the time to really get to know Kevin because of the situation he was put in,” DeLana Harvick said. “I think his personality, he’s very competitive, he’s very brash, kind of in-your-face type of guy. I think sometimes that can be misunderstood. … I really think owning his own teams and having to understand how he relates not only to the sport, but to NASCAR, to the media, to Richard, to his crew members (has helped him).

“Even going over and having weekly meetings, what he just takes for granted that he does at KHI, he goes over to RCR, where he used to not do that before. I think that’s really made him really understand how he fits into the sport. I don’t think that’s really something, whether it’s me, Richard or anybody else that can sit there and say, ‘You need to do this.’ It’s been an evolution for him. I think you can see that on the racetrack and off the racetrack. He doesn’t always say the right thing, and he’s probably going to make you mad half the time, but you always know where you stand and it is genuine.”

Harvick just needed time to understand the depth of what Earnhardt meant to the sport and to RCR. He admits he “put his guard up immediately” at the beginning of the transition. But at 35, Harvick has not only chose to embrace the legacy, he’s benefiting from it.

“I don’t think there’s any more pressure because I’ve been through all that pressure,” Harvick said. “All of a sudden, the first day on the job you had all these fans and all this pressure from the media. I said, ‘I don’t want to hear anything about Dale Earnhardt. I don’t want to hear anything about his fans. I don’t care about his fans. I don’t care about what he did.’

“Now, over the past couple of years, you know what, everything they talked about Dale was a compliment. It’s a compliment to be compared, to say ‘Dale won the Daytona 500 this way, Dale won the All-Star race this way.’ Those things are compliments because it means you’re having success on the racetrack and doing things right.

“Obviously, his legacy is going to be here for a long time, forever in this sport. For me, it’s really just about trying to win a championship and win races and do your thing. Those comparisons are compliments in the end. I feel like we’ve been able to establish myself personally in the sport, and I think we’ve had a lot of the same things accomplished with winning some of the big races. I’m comfortable with that now. It’s just a part of RCR, it’s a part of my car, and it’s going to be that way forever. I enjoy it.”

This year, Harvick assembled the most consistent season of his career. Before the Chase for the Sprint Cup began, his No. 29 team held a 229-point lead over second-place Kyle Busch. Then the standings were restructured with the addition of bonus points for wins. Harvick has held his own throughout the Chase with an average finish of 6.1. He’s dropped out of the top three in the standings just once, after a 15th-place finish at Dover, but solidified his position down the stretch.

Entering the season finale, Harvick is relishing his position. Realistically, he believes that Hamlin and Johnson will have to make mistakes for the No. 29 team to capitalize on their misfortunes and have a shot at the title. But compared to his competitors, Hamlin and Johnson, Harvick has dealt with a burden they will never know.

“It’s a complete circle, it really is,” Harvick said. “I realized that this week and it’s almost, it’s a little bit different week than I’ve ever had. It’s kind of brought it all full circle, and you realize that those people are still out there and still love the sport and still love everything that happens at RCR and have found that hole that has been missing, that’s been the competitive nature of what used to be the 3 car in the 29 car.

“It’s very rewarding to know that those people are still out there and still care enough about the sport to come say, ‘Hey, we want you to win, we’re here to support you, we’ve supported you, we started watching you, faded away.’ Now they’re back. That, to me, it’s been an unbelievable week for us, for me personally to see all that happen.”

Harvick is intent on returning the favor to his fans. Unlike his competitors, Harvick’s not shy when it comes to his strategy for Sunday’s race. In traditional Earnhardt fashion, Harvick admits he’ll “do whatever I have to do” on Sunday to bring the Sprint Cup back to Welcome, N.C. — the home of Richard Childress Racing.

“These opportunities come along not every year, and I owe it to my team to do that. I think as you look at our position in the race and for the championship, we just will, and I won’t lose sleep over it,” Harvick said.“They would be disappointed if it wasn’t that way, and it’s just the nature of the beast that you get with everything that comes from RCR. Ask for forgiveness later.

”Richard – that’s just what he expects, and that’s just the type of person that he is. It doesn’t bother me at all. It’s there for the taking, and if we’re in position to take it, we will.”