Author: Dave Caldwell
Date: Nov. 17, 2017
A 25-year-old stock-car driver from California named Kevin Harvick stepped into a crowded tent next to the fog-shrouded racetrack at Rockingham, N.C., two days before his first Nascar race.
The team owner Richard Childress introduced him as the driver of a white No. 29 Chevrolet, but the real message was that Harvick would be replacing the seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt Sr., who had been killed five days earlier — Feb. 18, 2001 — on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
Harvick finished 14th that weekend and won his third race, the first of 37 victories at Nascar’s top level. He knew that Childress had given him a white No. 29 car because driving Earnhardt’s fearsome black No. 3 would have been far too heavy a burden for any driver, let alone a rookie.
Harvick, now 41, is a rookie no more, with 167 top-five finishes behind him, a 400-mile race at Homestead, Fla., on Sunday ahead.
“I definitely feel like I’ve been here for a long time,” Harvick said.
Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will have a full field, but its Monster Energy Cup will be awarded to the best finisher among four drivers: Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. The four outperformed 12 other drivers in the first nine races of the playoffs.
Each finalist except Truex has won a series championship. But Truex has been fast all year.
“You want to be the person who everybody else says: ‘Damn, they’re fast. I just don’t know how we’re going to beat them,’” said Truex, a Mayetta, N.J., native, who won seven races this year.
Busch has won three of the last eight races. Keselowski won a grinding race at Talladega, Ala., and beat out four other drivers on points on Nov. 12 to squeeze into the final four. Harvick won only two races this season, the most recent on Nov. 5 at Fort Worth, Texas, and accumulated the fewest playoff points among the four drivers.
Compared to Truex and Busch, Harvick has not been a force. But his two race victories were the fewest since he won one race in 2012. He has finished among the top 10 in five of his last six races and did not complete four races because of crashes.
“He’s such a well-rounded driver,” Truex said. “No matter where you go, he’s always able to fight and get that last little bit out of his car.”
Harvick’s team made a much-heralded switch to Fords from Chevys this season, which usually results in a transition period.
“One of my strengths over the years is to be open-minded,” Harvick said. “The switch was just a part of that.”
Although the season-opening Daytona 500 is Nascar’s most famous and popular race, the championship race has been established as the Super Bowl for the series, with much heavier obligations to sponsors and the news media.
Nascar is also undergoing its own transition — somewhat similar to the shift it went through in the early 2000s, when Harvick joined the series. Two young drivers, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, were among the final eight in contention for the championship race. Harvick is the oldest driver among the four racing for the title Sunday.
With the 45-year-old Matt Kenseth and the 43-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. planning to step aside after this season, Harvick and the seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson, 42, will be the old-timers.
“I feel like there’s value in experience,” Harvick said.
He remembers that foggy morning in Rockingham clearly. He remembers the hotshot he was: “Twenty-five years old, didn’t have a care in the world. Didn’t care what anybody else thought.”
He got married less than a week after his top-series debut, and he and his wife, DeLana, have a 5-year-old son, Keelan, who plays tee-ball and is apparently his father’s toughest critic.
“He’s old enough to walk into a room after a race and say, `Dad, why’d you do that?’” Harvick, who has another baby on the way, said, laughing. “Life is an evolution.”
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