HAMPTON, Ga.--Nothing could have prepared Kevin Harvick for being thrust into the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet at North Carolina Speedway.
The days were gray leading into the Dura Lube 400. The mood was somber as fans continued to mourn the loss of Dale Earnhardt, who died after a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.
And at 25, Harvick had the responsibility to carry a team, an organization and a legion of fans through one of the toughest moments in NASCAR.
On Friday entering the weekend at Rockingham, it was tough for anyone to reach the track, with TV trucks from all over the country clogging the road to the entrance of the track affectionately known as The Rock. Every news outlet in the country wanted to capture the reaction of the fans and competitors and chronicle the path forward.
Harvick would never again feel such heat from the spotlight that shone bright on him that weekend. His message was simple: No one will ever replace Dale Earnhardt. No one could.
After rain delayed the race until Monday, Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver Steve Park won. Harvick finished 14th. While the DEI victory with Park was cathartic, nothing jump-started the healing process to the degree of Harvick’s win at Atlanta Motor Speedway two weeks later.
Despite the Bakersfield, California, native wheeling his way past Jeff Gordon for the victory, the day remains a blur for Harvick.
“I don’t have a lot of memories from there,” Harvick said. “Looking back on it now, I’m like all of you guys, I look back on it and you watch the video and you listen to the crowd and I can put a lot more of it into perspective now just because of the fact that I have a better understanding of the magnitude of the situation—really everything that came with that particular year.
“But that particular weekend in itself was kind of a blur for me because we were still at the point of not really understanding how to digest everything that was happening, not know where everything was going, not expecting to be driving the car.”
The Wednesday after Rockingham, Harvick was scheduled to be married in Las Vegas. There wasn’t time for a proper honeymoon. Qualifying for the Chrysler 400 was two days later. He started 20th and finished eighth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“Delana and I had just been married a few days before – I guess a week-and-a-half before that – so there was a lot of emotions that you didn’t know whether to be happy or sad,” Harvick said. “You weren’t prepared to be in the car. You weren’t prepared to do anything to deal with the magnitude of the situation, so the few things that I remember from that day are just it’s still the loudest crowd that I’ve ever been a part of, and to hear the crowd screaming over the running car after the race and seeing the people hanging on the fence down the back straightaway with a couple laps to go.
“Honestly, that’s really about it for me of things that stick out on that particular day, other than getting to pit road and seeing…you look back on it now and you realize the magnitude of all those guys walking out to pit road to congratulate you, and really they all understood and had a better sense of the situation than I probably did. When you look back at that and understand the magnitude of the situation, to get that kind of congratulations from a whole pit road of people is something that shows you the magnitude of the situation.”
Team owner Richard Childress had planned to run Harvick in Cup races throughout the 2001 season to prepare him for the next step in the progression. After winning rookie honors in the Busch Series in 2000, Harvick went on to win the tour title in 2001. Fourteen races after that first win at Atlanta, Harvick scored his second Cup victory at Chicagoland.
Despite missing the first race of the season, Harvick finished ninth in the Cup standings against 30 full-time drivers and won rookie honors. He would remain with RCR until the end of 2013, when Harvick elected to join Stewart-Haas Racing. In 23 seasons, he has scored 60 wins, 31 poles, 247 top fives, 433 top 10s and the 2014 Cup championship.
At 47, and in his last year of NASCAR Cup competition, Harvick can fully reflect on the scope of his accomplishment.
“When you look back on it now and you realize just what that could have meant in the other direction for your career, it could have been catastrophic,” Harvick said. “But it really was something. That moment really kept RCR going in the right direction and started to rebuild the process of what it was going to look like over the next decade.
“You look back on it now, and that’s really the start of understanding what your career was going to look like for a while. Now, there were a lot of decisions you could have made a lot better, but it was really a difficult situation that you didn’t even know you were in until you were way done with it.”