These days Harvick is a Cup Series champion, and one of the longest-tenured drivers in NASCAR’s top series. But at the start of the 2001 season, Kevin was an up-and-coming driver in NASCAR’s Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series) for Richard Childress Racing.
He was also one of the team’s test drivers, and he would often drive Dale Earnhardt’s #3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet at team tests – because the Intimidator hated testing.
While running for the Busch Series championship, Harvick was scheduled to make his Winston Cup Series debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the 4th race of the season.
But all that abruptly changed on February 18th, 2001.
That was, of course, the day that one of the biggest drivers in NASCAR history tragically lost his life in turn four of the final lap of the Daytona 500.
And after Earnhardt was killed, it was Kevin Harvick who was asked to step up and drive the most famous car in the sport.
It’s not a subject Harvick likes to talk about, but he recently joined Dale Earnhardt Jr. for his Dale Jr. Download podcast. And when Dale Jr. asked Harvick about replacing his dad, Harvick opened up – admitting that Dale Jr. is probably the only person that Harvick would ever even talk with about the subject.
“For me, I had always beaten my own path…
And so everything happened in 2001 and I get a call on Wednesday night after the accident and [car owner] Richard [Childress] says ‘Hey, I need you to come to the office.'”
And Harvick knew what that meeting was going to be about.
“I looked over at DeLana and I said ‘Well I know what’s coming here. What do you think I should do?’
She’s like ‘What do you think you should do?’
I said ‘Well I’m going to have to drive the car.’
She said ‘Is that what you really want to do?’
I said ‘Not really. I can’t think of anything else that I would want to do less. But I have to do it because if I don’t do it we’re going to have a major problem at the company.'”
So Harvick goes to meet with his team owner.
“Richard’s sitting behind the desk, looks like he’s not slept, probably hasn’t slept in 3 or 4 days.
He said ‘Kevin, we want you to drive the car. You’ve done all the testing, you know all the people.’
He’s like ‘We totally understand if you don’t want to drive it.’…
I said ‘I’ll do whatever it takes for RCR and the company until everybody gets back on their feet.’
And that was really the only conversation that happened.”
And just like that, Harvick was thrust into the spotlight and into the seemingly impossible position of replacing one of the biggest names the sport has ever seen.
The team redesigned the car, changing the paint scheme from black to white, and changed the number on the car from #3 to #29.
Then, Harvick had to climb behind the wheel.
“So we go to Rockingham and we get to the racetrack. And I always tell people, I didn’t want to be in this position.
I knew it was the right position to be in, but there wasn’t anything about this position that was fun.”
But while Kevin may not have wanted to be in the car, he had the blessing of one important person: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Kevin still remembers his meeting with Dale Jr:
“You came by the trailer. And he said ‘I just want you to know that my family’s – we’re glad that you’re in the car. We’re behind you.”
If you were a NASCAR fan back in 2001, you probably remember how much of a shadow Dale Earnhardt’s death cast over the entire season. There were tributes to Dale at every race, and lingering questions about not only the future of his team but also the future of the entire sport.
The one saving grace for Kevin, though, was that he managed to stay so busy that season between driving in both the Busch Series and the Cup Series, as well as testing, that he was able to avoid most of the distractions and focus on just driving the car.
And Kevin managed to have success almost immediately after hopping into Dale’s ride, finishing 14th in his Cup Series debut (an emotional race that was won by Steve Park, who drove for the race team owned by Dale Earnhardt), and then scoring his first top 10 finish the next week at Las Vegas in only his second race in NASCAR’s top series.
It was that top 10 finish, according to Kevin, that seemed to take some of the pressure off of team owner Richard Childress.
Kevin remembers the flight home with Childress after the race:
“We fly home on the plane and Richard’s got this $15,000 bottle of wine that’s the year that he’s born. We just got our first top 10 and he’s finally starting to come around and start to speak and wrap his arms around it some.
And we finally had a good moment, right?
So we get on the plane and he’s like ‘You win a race, we’ll drink this bottle of wine.’
I had never drank a bottle of wine in my life, so I’m like ‘If I’m going to drink a bottle of wine I’d love to drink your $15,000 bottle of wine.'”
Well it didn’t take Harvick long to cash in on that $15,000 bottle: He won the very next race, the fourth race of the season and only his third Cup Series start, when he beat out Jeff Gordon at Atlanta by only .006 seconds.
And it was also the race where Harvick was supposed to make his Cup Series debut.
Harvick remembers the reaction of the crowd, but he admits that he doesn’t remember much else from that race.
“I don’t remember anything about that day. I remember nothing. I remember Rockingham, but Atlanta, I don’t remember much about anything that went on.
It was so surreal because of, first, you won the race. But when I stopped on the front straightaway and pulled that window net down and did the burnout and turned around to the crowd and everybody in the crowd’s got three fingers holding up.
And they are screaming as loud as any crowd that I’ve ever heard…
And to not remember that just kind of tells you just how weird it all was.”
Harvick’s win was an incredible moment in a season that was spent grappling with the death of one of the sport’s greatest drivers.
It was a position that Harvick admits he never wanted to be in.
But in the end, it’s one that helped the sport heal and helped launch Harvick on the path of a career that’s led him to win the sport’s biggest trophy – and he’s still going strong over 20 years later.
A win at Atlanta put @KevinHarvick's career into a stratosphere he never imagined. He opens up to @DaleJr about how tough and awkward the 2001 season was.