CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The first three weeks following Dale Earnhardt’s death were a whirlwind for Kevin Harvick, the driver suddenly tasked with carrying a race team reeling from grief.
Harvick was slated to race for the 2001 championship in NASCAR’s second-tier series but Richard Childress needed him to fill Earnhardt’s seat. Harvick, admittedly “young and dumb” at the time, told Childress he’d do both jobs.
Attempting to replace Earnhardt was an unenviable ask of any driver, let alone a 25-year-old at the start of his NASCAR career. By committing to that frantic two-series schedule, Harvick created a shield from the intense scrutiny of an emotionally draining season.
His Cup Series debut came seven days after Earnhardt’s death and then Harvick was off to Las Vegas for his wedding — it had been built into the NASCAR schedule before the season began — and the start of a year spent primarily in race cars and airplanes.
The standout moment of that tumultuous season came in his third Cup race when Harvick held off Jeff Gordon by 0.006-seconds — the edge of his front bumper — to win at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Harvick returns to Atlanta on Sunday for the 20th anniversary of that victory. He says he wishes he “ would have realized then how big this moment was.”
His memories of that emotional win two decades later are scattered. He recalls the five-car battle over the final 10 laps, the fans lining the fence along the back straightaway and the backward victory lap when he flashed three fingers out his window to honor Earnhardt.
The rest is a bit of a blur.
“It was obviously a moment I don’t think any of us expected, but there are a number of things that obviously changed in the weeks before that,” Harvick said. “It took me a long time to really get comfortable, to really even think about things that happened that day. There were so many things that happened backwards in my career.”
Harvick won two Cup races that year and beat Kurt Busch for top rookie honors. He won another five times in the Xfinity Series (then called the Busch Series) and the championship. All told, he made 69 starts and crisscrossed the country, often borrowing planes from Childress or teammate Mike Skinner, to get between tracks when the two series raced at different venues.
“Racing that much really hid me from a lot of things because of the fact I was so busy. It really allowed me to kind of hide under a rock,” Harvick said. “But 2002 was when I realized the magnitude of the situation we were in. Racing so much and often in 2001 really covered all that stuff up.”
Harvick spent 13 years driving for Richard Childress Racing and recognizes now how critical that 2001 season was. It was imperative that the organization keep Earnhardt’s car on track all season and the Atlanta victory was a morale boost for a heartbroken crew.
“Knowing now what it meant to the sport, and just that moment in general of being able to carry on, was so important,” Harvick said.
He moved to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, the year he won his only Cup championship, but he’s been a perennial contender every season. He won a series-high nine races last year but failed to advance to the championship finale.
Five races into this new season, Harvick heads into the anniversary of his first Cup victory looking for some of that success from last year. He’s led only 17 laps so far this season, a far cry from the 318 laps he’d led through five races a year ago.
He does sit seventh in the standings with four top-10 finishes. But the rest of the SHR stable is 20th or lower in points and the organization doesn’t seem to have the same pace it did in 2020.
SHR is adapting to NASCAR’s inspection crackdown on the shape of the rear wheel wells, an area SHR had apparently achieved significant gains by taking advantage of loopholes. Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio the inspection changes cost the team 70 counts of downforce.
“Every year, you don’t really know what to expect when things change,” Harvick said. “I think, for us, we just missed it on all levels with all the different things that are going on from last year, so I think whether we overthought it or just missed it has yet to be seen.”
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports