So many years have passed and so much history has been written since stock-car racing icon Dale Earnhardt crashed to his death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Within days, devastated team owner Richard Childress reassigned a second-year driver from a second-tier series to the tragically vacated seat of arguably the best and indisputably the fiercest driver in NASCAR lore. Kevin Harvick, then 25 years old, became known instantly. Three weeks to the day after Earnhardt’s fatal crash, he began becoming famous.
Harvick steered an RCR Chevrolet renumbered from No. 3 to No. 29 and repainted from the familiar “Intimidator” black to white to a healing victory in Atlanta by mere inches over the superstar who had supplanted Earnhardt as the face of NASCAR, Jeff Gordon.
On Sunday, in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Harvick will strap into a Richard Childress Racing Sprint Cup car for the final time.
He’s leaving the team after the season finale to join three-time champion Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. And he’s not slipping out the door quietly. On or off the race track.
With his second victory in the 10-race Chase for the Cup at Phoenix last Sunday, Harvick retained a mathematical chance to overhaul five-time champion Jimmie Johnson for his first title and closed on Matt Kenseth for a possible runner-up points finish.
Kenseth and the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota team showed no ill effects of a damaging 23rd-place finish at Phoenix with a lap of 177.667 mph Friday night to claim the Ford 400 pole position. But all three contenders qualified among the front seven. Harvick will line up sixth and Johnson seventh at 3 p.m. Sunday.
“We knew it would be that way,” said Johnson, who can clinch his sixth championship with any finish 23rd or better no matter how Kenseth and Johnson fare. “We’ll be running around each other all day Sunday.”
Legitimate title shot or not, Harvick expressed absolute confidence in his Budweiser Chevrolet after posting his 176.655 mph qualifying lap. “Oh, yeah, we have a car fast enough to win this race, for sure,” he said.
That would be Harvick’s 23rd and end his partnership with Childress on a happy note after a strained few weeks that have served as a reminder that the two have survived and thrived despite periodic friction.
For all the headlines Harvick has made with undeniable skill twisting a steering wheel and mashing a gas pedal, he has matched those with his often-volatile nature and barbed tongue.
He’s not one to let anger over a perceived slight or a dented quarter panel fester. He’s flammable. He vents. He occasionally rages. He periodically confesses he was out of line.
Never has that Jekyll-and-Hyde dichotomy been more evident than in the weeks since Harvick tangled on the track with the younger of Childress’s two racing grandsons, Ty Dillon, in a Camping World Trucks race at Martinsville, Va. He lashed out verbally afterwards at both Ty and brother Austin as young drivers essentially being spoon-fed success.
It speaks volumes that Childress, Harvick, the Dillons and the rest of the team worked through damaged feelings and tension for Harvick to reinsert himself into the championship picture, if barely. Two more top-10 finishes preceded the Phoenix win.
A lot of fence-mending occurred in the days after, and Childress has understandably attempted to push the matter to the back burner.
With a highly productive 14-year partnership with Harvick coming to the checkered flag, he said, “We did so much together, won a lot, and I just like to think of all the good things that have happened, not dwell on the negatives.”
A reflective Harvick spoke Thursday of the “Martinsville situation,” things that “should not have been said,” and how it prompted long talks that eventually gravitated toward reminiscence of how good he and Childress have been for each other.
“I wish that whole situation had not transpired,” Harvick said. But he did call attention to how the Childress organization has become so adept at patching over rough spots and overcoming adversity, notably after emotional flare-ups.
“Richard has always been good about letting me be who I am,” Harvick said, “but there’s still a line in the sand that we’ve crossed a few times, and he has been good about enforcing that.”
Childress rationalized, “I’ve never seen a good driver who didn’t have a fire inside him.”
Harvick qualifies on both counts.