Anyone remember the quarterback who took over for Bart Starr at Green Bay? How about Michael Jordan’s replacement with the Bulls – both times he left Chicago.
Following a legend is hardly easy, and often those who step into giant shoes are swallowed up by anonymity.
Kevin Harvick knows all about great expectations. Last year, he was slated to be the third pilot for Richard Childress Racing. Instead, he is now driving Earnhardt’s car – thrown into the driver’s seat due to Earnhardt’s death on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt will likely be remembered as NASCAR’s greatest driver, but the 25-year-old Harvick is doing all he can to make sure The Intimidator’s memory is served well.
“My father always told me there would be times when I’d be thrown into situations I didn’t know how to deal with,” Harvick says. “And he told me just to deal with them the best way I can. Fans understand that I can never replace Dale Earnhardt, and I wouldn’t even try. I just want to unleash everything I’ve got and try to honor Dale.”
The Man in Black would’ve been proud. With the car now sporting a predominantly white paint scheme and the number 29, the Bakersfield, Calif., native has already tasted victory in a thrilling Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta. Despite missing the first race of the 2001 season, Harvick has positioned himself 13th in the Winston Cup points standings.
“We were eighth at Las Vegas, 14th at Rockingham and running on the lead lap at Darlington,” Harvick says. “I think overall we’ve done a pretty good job.”
Before the tragedy at Daytona, Harvick was slated to run for the Busch Series title and compete in a limited number of Winston Cup events for Childress. All that changed on Feb. 18, when the motorsports world mourned the loss of one of its heroes and car owner Richard Childress had to deal with replacing a competitor who can never truly be replaced.
“Kevin was originally going to be the third driver for RCR, but when everything happened, we felt like Kevin could go ahead and drive the car,” Childress says. “We were going to race him at Atlanta anyway, and for him to win it was unbelievable.”
Childress opted to take the number three and black color scheme out of rotation following Earnhardt’s death, but had mixed emotions when Harvick held off Jeff Gordon to win at Atlanta.”
“We want to build an image around Kevin, so we thought it was best if we went to the new number and new color,” Childress said. “But so much was going through my mind on that last lap at Atlanta.
“In my mind and in my heart, the black 3 car will always belong to Dale Earnhardt, but it would’ve been neat if that car had crossed the finish line and the white paint blew off and the ‘3’ appeared.”
Harvick won the 1998 Winston West championship and competed in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series a year later. In 2000, Harvick established himself as a top gun in BGN, winning three races, copping Rookie of the Year honors and finishing second in the overall standings.
While he has been pressed into full-time Winston Cup duty ahead of schedule, Harvick is determined to fulfill his obligations in Busch.
“I guess maybe if it gets to be July and I have to take IVs every weekend, I might rethink it,” Harvick says. “But we’re committed to both series. We might need a jet fuel sponsor to get us back and forth to the races, but otherwise, I think we can pull it off.”
For Harvick, the last couple of months have been a blur. There were the emotions of losing his mentor, then the realization that he would now be behind the wheel of the most famous car in racing.
“The biggest thing I’ve had to adjust to is the overwhelming support of the fans,” he says. “What I need to concentrate on is giving back to the fans everything they’ve given me. The first week after Dale died, I think we were all in a state of shock.
“But we all knew we didn’t want Dale’s legacy to die. We had to gather together as a group and work through everything together.”