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Harvick's hot, and cool

He's burning up tracks with top 10 finishes, minding his manners and boosting his team.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 30, 2002

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Months have passed without incident, without so much as a fender rub. Kevin Harvick has given NASCAR every reason to forget he's still on probation.

He is calm.

He is cool.

He is quiet.

So quiet, in fact, his resurrection from an embarrassing start to 2002 has gone virtually unnoticed. Harvick just happens to be the hottest driver in Winston Cup racing the past two months, consistently steering the No. 29 Chevrolet into the top 10.

"I think a lot of people thought they had us beat down, kicked up, buried in our grave and looking for something to fill the hole," said Harvick, 26, in his second season with Richard Childress Racing (RCR). "We've been sitting back for a couple months just watching and writing and remembering -- just putting our heads down and letting our race car do the talking."

The silence is deafening. Starting with a breakthrough fuel-mileage win at Chicago in July, Harvick has six top 10s in the past seven races, including four top fives. In that span, no one has earned more points, 904, or climbed more places in the standings, from 30th to 19th.

"We're on this roll right now," said Harvick, who will attempt to qualify today for the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. "We're short-track racing here for a while. We came through Bristol extremely well, and now we have Darlington, Richmond and New Hampshire. All of these are places where you can run really well and finish really bad because of someone else's mistake."

After the death of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt at the 2001 Daytona 500, Harvick helped RCR through its mourning period by winning the 2001 Busch title and Winston Cup rookie of the year. But success was fleeting.

Early in 2002, it was clear RCR had fallen behind the competition. Frustrated, Harvick pushed his luck on the track when he deliberately spun Coy Gibbs in a Craftsman Truck race at Martinsville in April. NASCAR "parked" him for the next Cup race to send the brash, young driver a message. Soon, rumors circulated that Harvick and Childress were at odds.

Most wrote Harvick off.

"We were down," said Childress, who claims he never lost faith in Harvick. "When you're down, people try to kick you as hard as they can. But no one ever gave up. We knew that there was a peak up there, and we could get there."

To shake up his ailing three-car team, Childress swapped the crews of Harvick and Robby Gordon (No. 31) 13 races into the season. Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin clicked right away, winning their third race together.

"It's probably a surprise to a lot of the people in the stands and all over the country that we've been able to run this good this fast," Martin said. "This team is good, the organization is good. We just had a lot of little things that we had to get over and we've gotten past them. We'll be strong."

Harvick wasn't always so sure. His confidence shaken, he wondered if he was the reason for the team's poor performance. Childress assured him such rough patches were part of Winston Cup racing and that, together, they would get through it.

"I was right on the verge of being in the doubt category and he took me down by the river and he said, "Look, everything is good,' " Harvick said. "He said, "Just trust me and I'll trust you.' All of a sudden, everything just kind of clicked in my head. I was there and he pulled me up and kept me from drowning."

Though Harvick insists his driving style has not changed, he has learned from his mistakes. A hothead who got even with other drivers on the track, Harvick now keeps his emotions in check when he's behind the wheel.

"You have to come back and gain a little respect," he said. "It's not that I can't be aggressive, it's just that you can't retaliate with your vehicle as a weapon."

After months of frustration, the outlook is positive.

"If we can make it through last year at RCR, we can make it through anything," Harvick said. "We've got a lot of confidence in each other and we're very, very excited to be together as a race team and as an organization.

"It doesn't matter what they say. We're here."

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