Dale Earnhardt successor Kevin Harvick has put together a hall of fame career as a NASCAR Cup Series driver. But the 2014 champion admits it took years for him to climb out from under Dale Earnhardt's shadow.
Harvick, 45, was just 25 years old when he was tabbed by Richard Childress Racing to replace the late Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time Cup Series champion who was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Harvick was entering his second season in the Xfinity Series when he was suddenly called up to the big leagues to replace the sport’s biggest star in one of NASCAR’s most iconic cars.
As Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death gripped the nation and stunned the racing world, a young Kevin Harvick was charged with replacing a racing icon for a team that was a perennial championship contender. He made the most of it, scoring a thrilling and emotional victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway in NASCAR’s third race following Dale Earnhardt’s death. His photo-finish victory over Jeff Gordon is still one of the most memorable moments of the 2001 season and provided RCR with the emotional lift it needed to get through a devastating tragedy and difficult season.
Harvick won again later that year at Chicagoland Speedway and wound up finishing ninth in points despite not running the season-opening race at Daytona.
Still, everywhere he went, and in everything he did, Harvick was haunted by the shadow of Dale Earnhardt, which loomed over the sport for a decade after his death. Harvick admits it was difficult and that he didn’t always handle it well.
“The shadow was obviously big and it was something that, for me, I always did things the way that I liked them and always had sort of beaten my own path as I went about things and made changes and drove the car and things that you did,” Harvick said in a Zoom conference with reporters Friday. “For the first four or five years, it was difficult just because of the fact that everything that you did was always compared to everything that Dale did. It was always, it wouldn’t have been handled this way or it would have been handled that way, or this guy did that and this guy did this, and it was just never something that was comfortable because I became defensive about it. I’m just not doing it that way in anything, and didn’t want to do anything that was the same way, just because I got tired of hearing it.”
Harvick struggled in 2002, winning just once and getting suspended for a race for an altercation on the track in a NASCAR Truck Series race. He finished a career-low 21st in points in his second season behind the wheel of Dale Earnhardt’s car. He rallied to finish fifth in points in 2003 before falling on hard times again, slumping to 14th in the series each of the next two seasons.
How did Kevin Harvick escape the shadow of Dale Earnhardt?
Harvick gradually became comfortable in what was essentially the famous No. 3 Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt in all but number and wound up winning 23 races and finishing in the top five in points six times for RCR. As Dale Earnhardt's shadow lifted, he came into his own, putting together four multi-win seasons and carving his own path and identity.
“As you got through the [sponsor] Goodwrench days and they kind of gravitated off the car and you had been in position to win a few races and start to get your own sponsors and really be able to have your own people around you, that really for me made things more comfortable because of the fact that you were living on your success and it wasn’t something that was given to you, or the position that you were in that you didn’t deserve," he said. "It was a position that you had earned, which is always the way I wanted to go about things. You needed to earn it to be where you were. I feel like you totally got out from underneath all that.”
In 2014, Harvick moved to Tony Stewart’s Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) squad and immediately won his first NASCAR Cup Series championship, bagging five races and the 2014 playoffs.
With SHR, he has emerged as one of NASCAR’s most dominant and consistent drivers. His nine wins led the series last year and he has 35 wins and six top-five points finishes in seven seasons with SHR. He has competed in the NASCAR Cup Series championship race five times in the last seven years.
Though Dale Earnhardt’s legacy is still alive and being celebrated again 20 years after his death, Harvick has stepped out from under that shadow to become his own man.
“We’re 20 years later and it is forever going to be compared just because of the fact of the way that everything went,” Harvick said. “But when I changed teams and went to Stewart-Haas Racing, it was really … 2014 was really the year that I was able to legitimize everything that I had done and was doing, just because I was capable of driving the car and being around people and doing the things that it took to win races and win a championship. It took a long time.”
Kevin Harvick explains the legacy of Dale Earnhardt
Harvick’s says Dale Earnhardt’s legacy and impact on the sport will always remain. From his relationship with NASCAR to his incredible marketing prowess, Earnhardt paved the way for many younger drivers to succeed. And the impact of his death is still being realized with the numerous safety improvements that came from that horrible 2001 season.
“The impact that he had and has had after Dale Earnhardt's death on the safety of the sport has been something that is far greater than would have happened with anybody else,” Harvick said. “I think that impact will probably be his [legacy] from the competitor’s standpoint. … Some of them in this day and age might not even realize the impact he has had on the safety side of it.”
With 76 career wins and seven championships, Dale Earnhardt was a first-ballot hall-of-famer. But perhaps more importantly, it was the way he raced and his influence on and off the track that is still felt today.
“He changed so many things about our sport in so many different ways, just because of the relationship with NASCAR. He was just willing to do things differently and think outside the box and get connected with the right people in different scenarios. … He’s changed the game on a number of different levels throughout the sport. … Having that demeanor and the way that he went about giving it everything that he had to try to win a race or gain a position was just something that the fans always latched onto and really liked.”