A week after Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, rookie Kevin Harvick was chosen to fill the seat of the legendary #3 car. Harvick had completed just one full season in the then-Busch Series, and had never made a Cup series start. But seven days after Earnhardt’s death, he made his debut in the Winston Cup Series in the most famous racecar in all of NASCAR.
Talk about pressure.
Oh, and he was only 25 years old at the time.
Richard Childress decided to retire the #3 and the famous black paint scheme that had been driven by Earnhardt (because who needs even more pressure in a situation like that?).
And when Kevin Harvick took over the new white #29 GM Goodwrench car, it was pretty clear from the start that Childress had picked the right man for the job.
Harvick finished 14th and 8th in his first two career Cup Series starts.
And then, March 11, 2001. A race that NASCAR fans will probably never forget.
It was Harvick’s third race of his career. As broadcaster Mike Joy said, Harvick had “the weight of taking over the car of a legend on his shoulders.”
The 2001 season featured tributes to Earnhardt at every stop on the circuit, and the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway that day was no different. Fans held up 3 fingers and the broadcasters stayed silent on the third lap.
But that day, Harvick managed to pull off an even bigger tribute to the NASCAR legend: He took Earnhardt’s former ride to victory lane.
It wasn’t an easy win. On the last lap, a hard-charging Jeff Gordon caught up to Harvick going into the third turn. In a familiar scene with a new twist, Earnhardt’s former ride and Jeff Gordon’s #24 car were side by side coming to the finish line. But in the end, Harvick managed to hold Gordon off and cross the finish line for his first victory – by only .006 of a second.
Harvick paid tribute to the Intimidator by holding 3 fingers out the window as he took a reverse victory lap around the track. And in a scene reminiscent of Earnhardt’s 1998 Daytona win, every crew member in the garage was there to greet Harvick when he got back to pit road.
It was an emotional scene in Victory Lane, with Harvick’s crew and his owner in tears as their car crossed the finish line for the win only three starts after losing their previous driver.
And even Jeff Gordon couldn’t be too upset about losing that one, praising Harvick after the race and saying that it was obvious that somebody was watching over them during the last lap.
Harvick has gone on to prove that no matter the circumstances, Richard Childress made the right call when he chose the young driver to fill the shoes of the greatest driver in the sport. He’s gone on to win 58 races over the last 20 years, and was the 2014 Cup Series championship. When he won again at Atlanta in 2018, he paid tribute to Earnhardt once again in the same way he had done 17 years prior