Harvick wins over Gordon in Cracker 500

Posted: Monday, March 12, 2001

HAMPTON, Ga. -- 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.

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.

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