In many ways, this has been a normal week for Kevin Harvick, even with a championship on the line. He did some planning for next season at Kevin Harvick Inc., worked out twice, and sat in on the regular Tuesday morning competition meeting at Richard Childress Racing, where his No. 29 squad game-planned setups and strategies for Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It was all routine and familiar, helping him to arrive in South Florida relaxed, smiling, and looking every bit like the outside title contender that he is.
And yet, at the same time, this week has been somewhat different. Harvick has noticed it in some of the telephone calls that have come into his race shop, in some of the messages he's received on Twitter, in some of the voice mails he's heard. The old Earnhardt fans are rousing, rallying around the Intimidator's successor, rooting on a driver who could bring RCR its first championship in NASCAR's premier division since the halcyon days of the beloved black No. 3.
There was once a time when such an outpouring would have made Harvick uncomfortable, when he would have rebuffed it, when he would have gone out of his way to try and prove that he was his own man and not someone just trying to carry on a legacy. It was certainly that way in the weeks and months after he was thrust into the national spotlight in the days immediately following Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001, when overnight he was transformed from a promising driver in the then-Busch Series into the seat of a vehicle that represented not just a six-time championship team, but in some ways an entire sport. But with time has come perspective, and Harvick now seems comfortable with the idea that he represents something bigger than himself.
"All these old-school Earnhardt fans have come out of nowhere," he said Thursday after a news conference involving the three remaining Sprint Cup title contenders. "The support has been great this week from the race fans, from people who hadn't watched races for a while. ... This is no disrespect to Dale [Earnhardt] Jr., he's had a couple of tough years, but those people are looking for something to grab onto, and it's almost been overwhelming this week with the support of that crowd of fans. Whether it be Dale Jr. fans or Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans, it's been a big eye-opener for me. Those people are looking for something that was attached to Dale Sr. and to say they're back on top again, would be one way to put it. It's just been the support of not only my core group of fans, but you also have this whole different group of fans that all of the sudden is back interested in what we are doing as a team."
He's still something of a long shot, 46 points behind leader Denny Hamlin, with four-time champion Jimmie Johnson in second place, 15 back. But Harvick seems to be relishing his position -- in fact, he's smiled more often and grown more talkative as the championship picture has tightened. People ask if he feels pressure. Pressure is running for a race team that's flailing in its attempt to remain competitive. Pressure is being 25 years old and being asked to replace an icon. Chasing down Hamlin and Johnson? By comparison that seems simple, which only makes Harvick more dangerous.
"It just seems like, you know, we've been through so much together," he said, referring to himself and car owner Childress. "It all has worked backwards for me with coming in, with taking over Dale's car. You started with the biggest press conference you'll ever be a part of in your whole life. You start with the weight of the world on your shoulders. As it's gone through the years, it's gotten easier. It's almost like you've gotten prepared for these situations before you even got started."
Harvick isn't the type who backs away from tough situations. The son of a firefighter, the Bakersfield, Calif., native wrestled for four years in high school because the mental and physical pain inherent to the sport only challenged him to get better -- both on the mat, and in the race car. "It was the best thing I ever did to prepare me for this level," he said, "... because it's so physically demanding, and you want to quit about every other day." He won the Winston West championship in 1998 with one car, which he used on all types of tracks, towed behind a 1977 Winnebago. He was one of several drivers mentored by Ron Hornaday, and spent many nights sleeping on the eventual Truck Series champion's couch.
But 2001? In an instant becoming the heir apparent to a seven-time champion, despite never having started a Cup race? That was too much.
"All of the sudden, first day on the job, you had all these fans, you had all this pressure from the media," Harvick recalled. "I put my guard up immediately and said, 'I don't want to hear anything about Dale Earnhardt, I don't want to hear anything about his fans, I don't care about his fans, I don't care what he did.' And now, over the last couple of years, it's been like, you know, everything they're talking about with Dale was a compliment. It's a compliment to be compared to, say, hey, Dale won a Daytona 500 this way, or Dale won the All-Star Race this way. Those things are compliments, because that means you're having success on the race track and doing things right. It would be a huge compliment [to win the championship], and I think the fans have been very supportive, and that's been a lot of fun this week."
The legacies of RCR and Earnhardt will forever be intertwined, to the point where Childress cars still carry a small No. 3 beneath the post behind the driver's side window opening. Initially, that association was something from which Harvick shied away.
"I tried for years to disconnect from that," he said. "But everything at RCR that has been built over the years, the foundation was built with Richard and Dale. You see Chocolate [Myers] and Will Lind and Danny Lawrence and all these guys who have been a part of the company for a long time, it's impossible to get away from that. And I've learned it's not something you really want to get away from. It's a great part of what RCR has done in this sport, and it's great to be a part of that now, and it's great to be a part of that team and carry that legacy on to be competitive for championships and winning races and doing the things we've done this year."
But it took a while for Harvick to get there, and struggles on the race track didn't help. The 2002 season, as RCR worked to reinvent itself in the wake of Earnhardt's death, was a miserable one. So was last year, where at one point RCR was so uncompetitive that Harvick publicly stated a desire to race somewhere else after his contract expired. (He now calls that "a spat.") Once again, the company looked inward and made the changes it needed to make. Harvick stayed, and enjoyed the most complete season of his career as a result. He won three races and led the standings for 20 weeks, building a 228-point advantage that was wiped out when drivers were re-seeded in the Chase.
All that remains to be achieved is a championship at the Cup level, something RCR hasn't done in 16 long years, since Earnhardt's seventh and final crown in 1994. Even if Harvick doesn't snap that drought this season, he believes the potential exists to end it soon. The changes made last year, he said, will make the organization more consistently competitive in the long run. Even with the addition of a fourth car for next season, there are no sponsorship shortcomings. And the car owner is more energized than he has been in years, Childress' enthusiasm renewed by watching his grandsons Austin and Ty begin their careers in racing.
"Richard and I have been through a lot together," Harvick said. "We've talked about what we have to do to get to this point. Whether we win or lose this year, we've taken a huge step toward achieving those goals and put ourselves as a company back in contention to what looks to be hopefully consistency as we go forward to racing for championships. It's taken a while. We've been there sporadically from '03 to '06, but we didn't step it up when it was time ... we feel we've gotten better in the last 10 weeks this year. It's what we want to achieve as an organization. And Richard has been there at this level. I think all the pieces are there to do that. It's just about making it all happen."
As for Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- the opportunity is there, which is all he can ask. How far is he willing to go? "Obviously you want to outrun the other team, and you want to do it as fair as you can," he said. "I think if it comes down to the end, I'll sleep fine. I'll do whatever I have to do."
And with that, Kevin Harvick smiled his trademark mischievous smile -- something he's been doing a lot of the past few weeks, befitting a driver who's at peace in so many ways.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.