Dale Earnhardt’s Death Changed Everything for Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing

Kevin Harvick was a 25-year-old “project driver” for Richard Childress Racing when the 2001 NASCAR season opened in Daytona Beach. He had run 69 Truck Series races for several teams the previous five seasons and was Rookie of the Year after running the 2000 Xfinity Series schedule for team-owner Richard Childress.

Many industry insiders figured he’d spend more time in Xfinity before succeeding Dale Earnhardt in the Cup Series. (In fact, Childress was already making that plan). But everything changed on Feb. 18, when Earnhardt died in the final turn on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

Several days after the sport’s most unforgettable accident, Harvick was named to run the last 35 races of the 36-race Cup schedule. In addition, he also would run all 33 Xfinity Series races and a one-off Truck Series race in the fall.

“He’s good and he’s strong, and we were going to move him up next year, anyway,” Childress said almost 20 years ago. “This has just made it happen a lot sooner than any of us would have wanted.”

Childress stayed in Florida for a few days after the accident, processing everything. It took time to accept that his best friend was gone, leaving him at a personal and professional crossroad. There were sponsorship issues to address. Personnel decisions to make. Accessory contracts to deal with. Scheduling to be done. Suggestions about a new livery for what had been a black and silver No. 3 Chevrolet.

But the most pressing matter was replacing Earnhardt as the company’s lead driver. (Injury-plagued Mike Skinner was RCR’s other full-schedule Cup driver). Given his level of subsequent success, it’s surprising that Harvick wasn’t the team’s obvious, slam-dunk, first choice. But he’d never raced a Cup car and was already committed to the full Xfinity schedule. A few drivers had run parts of two series at the same time, but nobody had ever run two full schedules simultaneously. Even so, Harvick always expected Childress to make that suggestion.

“I knew it was coming,” Harvick, now a 45-year-old superstar, recently told Autoweek. “My (soon to be) wife and I talked about it. There were a lot of things in question, but you just had this feeling of where it was headed. I’d done all the testing for Dale at the end of 2000. I’d worked with the team and been to four or five tracks in his car a number of times before we were into that (replacement) scenario.”

The major decisions came on the Wednesday night after Earnhardt’s death. Time was tight since his funeral was Thursday and teams were due in Rockingham, N.C. on Friday. RCR had to quickly repaint the Goodwrench-sponsored Chevrolet to an unfamiliar white and red, then renumber it. Childress offered No. 3 to Dale Earnhardt Jr., who chose to keep his familiar No. 8. Childress then considered retiring 3 (NASCAR said no) and taking 36, combining Earnhardt’s old number with 6, the number of Cup titles he and Earnhardt had won together. Eventually, Childress chose 29 because it was the closest number available to 30, which was taken.

“There were two different conversations,” Harvick said. “The first was in Richard’s office with him, (team executive) Bobby Hutchens, and Kevin Hamlin, who was Dale’s crew chief. Richard brought me in and said, ‘We want you to drive Dale’s car this weekend at Rockingham… but you don’t have to. We can get Rick Mast if you don’t want to. (Wally Dallenbach was an option). Take your time with the decision.’

“We worked it out that night… for me to start driving the Cup car at Rockingham. The Xfinity conversation was more difficult because Richard didn’t really want to run the whole schedule. When we started it was, ‘Let’s see if we can do it; let’s figure it out; let’s see how the season goes.’ For me, winning the Xfinity championship was always the main plan. That was what we were after. The Cup stuff was more survival.”

As things turned out, they survived quite well. Harvick was 14th in his Cup debut at Rockingham and eighth the next weekend at Las Vegas. In only his third career Cup start, he beat Jeff Gordon in an emotional photo-finish near Atlanta. After that, there was no looking back and no slowing down.

“When you look at the Cup thing, it was really more of a necessity for RCR to get through the year and fill the (sponsorship) hole,” Harvick explained. “And then we wound up winning at Atlanta. There were so many things that came with that win that were so unexpected. You didn’t have time to stop and think about them before you actually did them.

“For me, the intention that year was always to run seven Cup races (keeping his rookie eligibility). Those seven were supposed to be with my Xfinity crew, then we were supposed to move to Cup together. A little part of me misses that we never got to do that, to go from Xfinity to Cup together. We started together at RCR not knowing what we were getting into, but the (2001) Xfinity championship was something we’d planned on going after.”

Harvick and RCR ran 69 races over 40 weekends that year: 35 in Cup, 33 in Xfinity and one in Gander Outdoor Trucks. The score line was quite impressive:

• Cup victories near Atlanta and Chicago, four other top-5 finishes, 10 other top-10 finishes, and ninth in points despite missing the season-opener at Daytona Beach. In a rout, Harvick was the Rookie of the Year over Kurt Busch and Casey Atwood. He eventually won his only Cup title in 2014 by a single point over Ryan Newman.

The highlight, of course, was beating Jeff Gordon by 0.006 seconds in the spring Atlanta race. RCR was still reeling from losing Earnhardt, unsure of what to expect from this young, aggressive, unproven driver from California. Long-time crewman Danny “Chocolate” Myers—who had lost his father and an uncle to racing as a kid—remembers that Sunday afternoon as the most emotional of his life.

“None of us really knew what was going to happen going forward after Dale died.”

“None of us really knew what was going to happen going forward after Dale died,” the self-described “America’s Gasman” told Autoweek. “He was our hero, our best friend, our brother. But when Kevin won that race it suddenly seemed like all our questions were answered. It was like, ‘you know, we’re going to be OK with this.’

“You can see that in the TV shots (of the team tearfully celebrating) along pit road and you can hear that in the interview Richard gave on the cooldown laps. There were all these emotions coming from him, from a man who never shows many emotions about anything. That was a huge, huge win for the company. Maybe the best day of my life.”

Harvick recently spoke of the mixed emotions surrounding his breakthrough Cup victory. Truth be told, he’s not sure he was as appreciative as he would later become.

“It was a moment none of us expected, a moment we weren’t supposed to be in,” he said in the days before this year’s Daytona 500. “But a number of things had changed the weeks before and continued to change. It took me a long time to get comfortable enough to think about things that happened. So many things happened backward in my career. I look at my first Cup Series press conference, and that’ll be the biggest press conference with the most notoriety that’ll ever come. You’ll probably never get that type of notoriety or attention again.

“For a number of years, I was uncomfortable with that since it was so overwhelming. I turned defensive in a lot of ways because I wasn’t anticipating any of that. It was difficult understanding the magnitude of all those things that came with driving the car first, then winning in the car. There were a number of things that were extremely overwhelming with that whole scenario.”

• Xfinity victories at Fort Worth, Kentucky, Gateway, Clermont, and Bristol, plus 15 other top-5s finishes and four other top-10s. He and crew chief Todd Berrier were never lower than third in points and led the standings for the final 19 races. They won the first of Harvick’s two Xfinity titles by 124 points over Jeff Green. The second was 2006, when he ran both series again and won the title by an astonishing 824 points over Carl Edwards.

• Just for fun—and because he could run three races as easily as two—Harvick ran the fall Truck Series race at Richmond. Ho-hum… he finished second to Jack Sprague in a truck from his own shop. He was 27th in that weekend’s Xfinity race and second to Ricky Rudd in the Cup race.

The Cup and Xfinity teams were together on 24 of 40 race weekends in 2001. For the most part Harvick simply rode his golf cart from one garage to the other at the same track. But consider these two-race weekends: Charlotte and Nazareth on May 19-20; Kentucky and Pocono on June 16-17; Daytona Beach and Watkins Glen on July 7-8; St. Louis and Loudon on July 21-22; Denver and Pocono on July 28-29; and Memphis and Martinsville on Oct. 14-15.

Myers credits the intense planning for making the schedule work. “Everybody in the front office planned it out so well that I don’t think anybody ever worried about it,” he said. “I was working on both cars, and I don’t remember any real close calls with him not making both races the same weekend. That’s how good the planning was.”

Helicopters and private plans were always on-call, so what seemed impossible became merely trying. Harvick often missed practice or qualifying, but RCR always had someone standing by until Harvick arrived. “It was a lot of late nights and a lot of airplane rides back and forth,” he recalled, “but we figured it out and did it for the first time. After that it kind of became a trend within the sport.” (Indeed, Xfinity champions Harvick, Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski ran the full Cup and Xfinity schedules between 2006-2010).

“As that season progressed (and) obviously it was going well, we figured out the travel,” Harvick said. “It was never a conversation of we’re going to do it; it was always a conversation of we think we can do it. And the fact that nobody had ever done it or even attempted it was a question in everybody’s mind. As we got about halfway through the year, though, we realized we were going to go for it and do them all.”

But before all that, Harvick issued this commandment to the media during Rockingham weekend: “Let’s get this one thing straight,” he said sternly, literally shaking his finger at the audience. “There was only one Dale Earnhardt, and he was the best race-car driver this series has ever seen. We’re going to take this deal one race at a time and do the best we can. Don’t expect me to be like him.”

Kevin Harvick At a Glance

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