Kevin Harvick Wins in Earnhardt's Car
Monday, March 12th 2001, 12:00 am
News On 6
HAMPTON, Ga. â€“ Kevin Harvick sounded just like Dale Earnhardt when he scoffed at drivers who fear the speeds at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Then he drove just like him, winning a door-to-door battle with Jeff Gordon to take The Intimidator's car to Victory Lane in true Earnhardt style.
Harvick, a 25-year-old rookie who took over for Earnhardt after his death in the season-opening Daytona 500, won his first Winston Cup race Sunday, beating Gordon by inches in the Cracker Barrel 500.
"I don't even know how to put it into words, to tell the honest truth," Harvick said. "It took an extra cool-down lap just to get through the emotional part of it. I don't know how you could have scripted it any better."
This was supposed to have been Harvick's first Winston Cup race. The Busch Series driver was scheduled to run a limited Cup schedule this season, debuting at Atlanta Motor Speedway, before moving up full-time next year as Earnhardt's teammate.
The plan was scrapped when Earnhardt died and team owner Richard Childress asked Harvick to step into the car three weeks ago in Rockingham, N.C.
In his first two races, Harvick shown flashes of what Earnhardt had taught him. After qualifying Friday, he sounded just like him.
When asked about the high speeds at Atlanta, which can reach the 190 mph-mark, Harvick responded in the same crusty manner Earnhardt would have.
"If you want to race that's what you do," he said. "If you think it's too fast, maybe you ought to go do something else."
Harvick was ready to race Sunday when he climbed into the same Chevrolet Earnhardt drove to a second-place finish here last November.
He fought his way through a bumper-to-bumper, five-car battle for almost 10 laps, taking the lead on a three-wide pass of Jerry Nadeau and Dale Jarrett. Then, Harvick held off Gordon and beat him to finish line by .006 seconds, the edge of his front bumper.
The outcome left Richard Childress, Earnhardt's longtime car owner, in tears and unable to forget their glorious past.
"I just kept praying for Dale to help us out," Childress said. "He gave us the help we needed. I know he's somewhere, I can see him with that mustache of his just breaking into a big grin."
The finish was eerily similar to the spring race last year, when Earnhardt beat Bobby Labonte by .010 seconds for his record ninth victory on Atlanta's 1.5-milve oval.
And the scene afterward was similar to that when Earnhardt won the 1998 Daytona 500 and crew members from every team lined up along pit road to congratulate him. As Harvick made his victory lap, waiving three fingers out the window to symbolize Earnhardt's No. 3, the other crews gathered to greet him as he came off the track.
"I was sitting at home watching this race last year and for it to wind up almost the same way is scary, if you think about it," Harvick said. "And then coming into Victory Lane, with all those guys putting their arms out to me, all those guys who have been through one of the most difficult situations and supported me through it, all I can say is this one was for Dale."
The day began with a tribute to Earnhardt on the third lap of the race.
Most of the 125,000 fans stood silently for the entire lap with three fingers in the air while track officials released 7,000 black balloons, 1,000 for each of Earnhardt's seven series championships.
Harvick, meanwhile, bided his time throughout the 325-lap race.
He started fifth, in his Chevrolet, which was painted white instead of Earnhardt's trademark black, and was changed to No. 29 while NASCAR observes a one-year moratorium on Earnhardt's No. 3.
Harvick ran up front with the leaders for most of the race, and even led 12 laps early. But he didn't make his move until the final 10 laps of the event.
The race came out of its eighth caution on lap 305 and Nadeau and Jarrett quickly broke away from Harvick, Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But the trio closed in on the leaders, and Harvick pulled alongside Nadeau and Jarrett coming out of Turn 4 of lap 320. He cleared them coming out of Turn 2 on the next lap and was running alone up front until Gordon, who won a week earlier in Las Vegas, caught him in Turn 3 of the last lap.
They battled side-by-side for the last half-mile as they hurtled forward to the finish line. The two Chevrolets were practically touching as they crossed the line, with Harvick nosing ahead for the victory.
"That was a great, great race and I'm really proud of Kevin," Gordon said. "I hate to come in second, but in this situation I don't mind because a little more of something is going on over there."
The win made Harvick, last year's Busch Series Rookie of the Year, the fastest ever to win a Winston Cup race, doing it only his third attempt.
It also gave Chevrolet its fourth victory in as many races. The first two went to Michael Waltrip and Steve Park, drivers of cars owned by Earnhardt.
Nadeau, who beat Earnhardt here last November, finished third in a Chevrolet. Polesitter Jarrett was fourth in a Ford. Terry Labonte was fifth, followed by Ricky Rudd, Johnny Benson, Ken Schrader, Mike Skinner and Kurt Busch.
Earnhardt Jr., a teammate to Waltrip and Park, finished 15th after blowing his right front tire with three laps to go.
"The competitor in me is a little jealous," Earnhardt Jr. said. "But I'm really happy for Richard and especially the team because I know how much my father meant to those guys."