RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ Nothing was easy for Kevin Harvick from his very first day at NASCAR's highest level.
Thrust into a ride he wasn't ready for and forced to replace the sport's biggest icon, Harvick embarked on a bumpy five-year path pocked with problems he was ill-prepared to handle. He fought with rivals, bickered with teammates and jeopardized his career by challenging NASCAR one too many times.
But somewhere along the way he grew up, became a leader and helped turn around Richard Childress' slumping team.
``I would have fired my butt three or four years ago,'' Harvick said. ``But, you know, Richard is the type of person that he gives you a chance and let's you explore the world and try to realize who you are. As you get older, you become more mature and you understand situations.''
Understand this: Five years after Harvick scrambled into the late Dale Earnhardt's seat, he's finally become the championship contender Childress always knew he was.
His win Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway was his third of the season, and sends him into the Chase for the championship only 10 points out of first place.
Harvick didn't need the win at all. Needing to finish only 40th or better to lock up his spot in the postseason, he easily could have gone for a leisurely three-hour drive.
But that's not his style at all.
Harvick wants to win every time he gets into the car, so he stalked leader Kyle Busch and passed him for the win as they approached the white flag.
``I'd rather flip over and run 10th in the Chase than give up a chance to win a race,'' he said. ``If you have a chance to win the race, you have to win the race. They are too hard to come by.''
That very philosophy is what got Harvick in trouble during the early part of his NASCAR career.
He was 25 and supposed to have an entire year to prepare for his move to the upper echelon Cup series. But when Earnhardt was killed in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Harvick was fast-tracked to stardom.
Childress put him in Earnhardt's car, with a fresh coat of white paint and a new number. But the outward changes did little to change the fact he was replacing an icon. Some fans loved him, others loathed him, and Harvick wanted no part of the debate.
He tried to put his focus on the track, but his ultra-competitive nature handcuffed him. Harvick is brash and unafraid to speak his mind, especially when a rival rubs him the wrong way.
So he fought with Greg Biffle, openly mocked Kurt Busch and feuded with his very own RCR teammates.
``I've left competition meetings before with everybody looking at me like I was the biggest butt in the whole entire world,'' he said.
NASCAR eventually said ``Enough!'' when the sanctioning body suspended him for one race in 2002 as punishment for wrecking another driver in a Truck Series race the day before.
It was the wake-up call Harvick needed, but it came when RCR was spiraling into a deep slump. Even though Harvick finally saw the big picture, his team had fallen on hard times and running up front was no longer an automatic.
It wasn't until this season that RCR finally turned the corner and reclaimed its spot among the NASCAR elite. But it began in the final year of Harvick's contract, with both sides unsure if he should return.
Childress wanted Harvick only if the driver was ready to do the things necessary to win a title. And Harvick wanted to return only if Childress had a team capable of doing it.
Despite tons of money thrown his way from other teams, Harvick ultimately decided he wanted to stay put and signed a contract extension in May.
``I wanted to know all my options, I didn't want to second guess the decision,'' he said. ``I felt like RCR was the play where I needed to be. I think everybody is thinking we made the right decision.''
Now 30 years old, Harvick is finally at the place Childress always knew he could be.
He's running away with the Busch Series title, and has an honest shot at adding the Cup title to it. Teammate Jeff Burton is also in the Chase, giving RCR two out of 10 title chances.
``We can do it, Kevin or Jeff,'' Childress said. ``We've still got work to do, still got improvements to make, but we've come a long way and we've got as good a chance as anyone.''
When asked if Harvick is finally ready to be a champion, Childress didn't pause.
``He's already a champion,'' he said. ``Always has been.''