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Harvick's poise puts him on top after tragedy

Winston Cup rookie has the car - and toughness - of Dale Earnhardt.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 5, 2001


The most hectic, emotional week in Kevin Harvick's life was far from over.

The rookie, who replaced a stock car legend, emerged from his team's transporter after the Dura Lube 400 on Feb. 26 at North Carolina Speedway with fiancee in tow and an eye on getting to a nearby helipad as fast as possible.

"I'm going to go to Las Vegas and get married," Harvick said after finishing 14th in that race, NASCAR's first since Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash in the Daytona 500. "I don't need to be nervous. I've got the right one."

As it turned out, his marriage two days later was one of the only things the 25-year-old actually planned on before this NASCAR season.

How could Harvick have known that at a moment's notice he'd be plucked from the obscurity of the Busch Grand National series and plopped into a seat designed for his mentor.

But the affable Californian with the ever-darkening circles under his eyes has adjusted remarkably well to his job as Earnhardt's replacement despite competing full time in two series and occasionally in one other.

"I think he's done a whale of a job," Winston Cup driver Elliott Sadler said. "Anybody that had to step in the situation he did, kind of throwing him to the lions ... and do what he's done ... he's done very well."

Harvick leads the Busch Grand National standings -- having won two races -- and is ninth in the Winston Cup rankings entering the Pepsi 400 on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway.

The Pepsi 400 will be his first Winston Cup race at the 2.5-mile track and the first time in 17 seasons Richard Childress' car won't be a black No. 3 driven by Earnhardt.

The team's Chevrolets were painted white and adorned with No. 29 when Harvick took over at North Carolina Speedway.

"It has been the craziest year of my life, and things have really just been off the wall so far," Harvick said. "It's pretty cool, but we also understand that there's a realistic factor in here somewhere that has to take place."

How's this for realistic?

The 2001 Race Odyssey, as his public relations team has dubbed Harvick's marathon season, is only 36 races, 10,062 miles and 7,734 laps old. He is pegged to compete in 69 races combined in the Winston Cup, Busch Grand National and Craftsman Truck series by the time it's all over in November.

Harvick will pull double duty this weekend, jetting back and forth from Daytona to Watkins Glen, N.Y., where the Busch Grand National circuit races.

"There's got to be some pressure there, and he never shows it," Childress said, "not on the racetrack, not in the media. He's solid."

He is the feel-good story of an otherwise numbing season, winning over Earnhardt fans apprehensive to align with and accept a rookie.

"It's an overwhelming situation," Harvick said. "It could have been a whole lot worse if everybody had taken a negative attitude toward it. But the race fans have taken me in with open arms and understand that I can't replace Dale Earnhardt and that I'm not going to try to replace Dale Earnhardt."

Winning in his third start with Earnhardt's teary-eyed team and finishing second in the Coca-Cola 600 in May at Lowe's Motor Speedway solidified that status.

"He's just doing a great job," Jeff Gordon said after losing to Harvick by .006 seconds in March at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "He's smooth, he's aggressive, and it's neat to see that."

Harvick also has drawn comparisons to the seven-time Winston Cup champion through an on- and off-track machismo normally reserved for veterans.

For example: "If you're not a race car driver ... stay home," Earnhardt said last season. "Don't come here and grumble about going too fast. Get out of the race car if you've got feathers on your legs or butt."

Harvick expressed a similar sentiment at Atlanta.

"If you want to race, that's what you do," he said. "If you think it's too fast, maybe you ought to go do something else."

In the most recent Winston Cup race, the Dodge/SaveMart 350 on June 24 at Sears Point Raceway, Harvick and Robby Gordon re-arranged each other's fenders with 10 laps to go.

Harvick was one lap down while Gordon was vying for the win.

"If you can't drive straight and drive clean," Harvick said after finishing 14th, "then I don't feel sorry for him a bit."

The two will be teammates at Watkins Glen this weekend, which begins a four-week stretch in which Harvick will compete in nine races.

It's part of a season that hasn't slowed since February.

"I've seen some people come in this sport and success will destroy them," Childress said. "Kevin is focused on racing. That's his No. 1 thing right now -- other than his wife -- and that's a goal to being a champion, and I think that's what he is."

Pepsi 400

WHERE: Daytona International Speedway

QUALIFYING: Today

TV: 8 p.m., TNT

RACE: Saturday

TV: 8 p.m., Ch. 8

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