Parking does little to change Harvick

Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2002

The camera shot started at his feet and slowly panned up to show Kevin Harvick lounging on a golf cart during pre-race activities. With a sly smile, he leaned in close and sent a message to the national audience.

''I'm back,'' he announced in a mocking tone.

Yes, NASCAR's newest bad boy has returned after being parked for one race, and little has changed.

''I don't really think that NASCAR wants an apology for anything,'' said Harvick, who was forbidden by the sanctioning body to drive at Martinsville Speedway two weeks ago for a series of incidents.

He was cleared to race last week at Talladega and returned to the track humble, but he refused to say he was sorry for his actions.

Harvick, first put on probation for scuffling with Greg Biffle after a Busch race at Bristol last month, was penalized for bumping and banging with Coy Gibbs during a truck race at Martinsville. When the sanctioning body had seen enough, he was called off the track, and he pulled his truck up to the NASCAR hauler to discuss it.

At some point during that meeting, NASCAR decided Harvick needed to be taught a lesson.

So they told him to go home and not to bother showing up for the Winston Cup race. It was the first time in the sport's 54-year history a driver was punished for rough driving.

Harvick got the message loud and clear. But the brash, 26-year-old driver who inherited Dale Earnhardt's ride following his death last year has vowed not to change his aggressive style.

''I like to race the race car. I don't care if it's a late model, I don't care if it's a street stock, I'm going to go out and race the car as hard as I can,'' he said. ''I just want to win the race, and a lot of times that doesn't work anymore.

''But I did learn that we can win races, we can do a lot of things, but unless I can walk up into that trailer, sit down in that office and have a normal, decent conversation with them, then I'm not going to get anywhere.''

There's a lot more to it than that.

When Harvick burst onto the Winston Cup scene last year in a competitive car, it didn't take him long to make enemies.

When he showed he could bump with the best of them, the veterans took exception. When his aggressiveness crept too close to the unwritten code of conduct, he picked up the nickname ''The Instigator,'' a play on Earnhardt's nickname ''The Intimidator.''

Now he's on probation for the year as punishment for his actions at Bristol and Martinsville, and it will be open season on him for retaliation.

There's little Harvick can do about it -- the slightest slip could get him sent home again, and every driver knows it.

''They're going to try to use him as a pingpong ball,'' his crew chief, Kevin Hamlin, said. ''Wouldn't you?''

Four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon said that's going to be the hardest thing for Harvick to deal with.

''Now he's in a situation where he's not sure if he can race the same way that he did before or where those limits are,'' Gordon said. ''I feel for him. That's a tough position to be in.''

Car owner Richard Childress hired Harvick because of his passion and competitive spirit, and has long used the phrase ''there's worse problems to have'' when talking about an aggressive driver.

But now that Harvick's behavior has turned into a problem, Childress has counseled him on toning it down.

''You've got to bite your lip a lot of times when you're driving a race car,'' Childress said. ''Your emotions and tempers run high. Will people push him? Yeah, they're going to see what he's made of, and he's going to have to bite his lip that much harder.''

He made it through Talladega without incident, but the real tests are yet to come. In two weeks, the series goes to Richmond, where Harvick has a history -- he tangled with Ricky Rudd on the short track last year, with Rudd bumping him out of the way to win the race.

With so many veterans making no secret of their dislike for his behavior, the payback could start there.

Rusty Wallace, himself a handful when he broke into Winston Cup, was one of the first drivers to offer some ''ol' fatherly advice'' to Harvick.

''Kevin's got a lot of talent, he's just a little wild and untamed,'' Wallace said. ''So I explained to him that early in my career, NASCAR told me many, many times they could run a race without me. And I told him I'm sure they could do without him, too, so he'd better be careful.''

Wallace compares Harvick to Tony Stewart, another volatile driver, and suggested Harvick could take a page from Stewart's recently toned-down behavior.

Stewart said it shouldn't be too hard for Harvick.

''I just shut up,'' Stewart said. ''Once I stopped talking so much, I stopped getting myself in trouble so much. It's pretty simple. I haven't talked to Kevin about that, but it's not a difficult philosophy to follow.''

Harvick isn't sure he wants -- or needs -- any advice. While appreciative of the support from Wallace and others, he hasn't gotten past the sting of the criticism from other drivers after Martinsville.

And that's an indication he may never change.

''Most of them that are voicing their opinion are not worth wasting my time over,'' he said.

Still, he insists he's learned a lesson that can only help his career.

''The best drivers and best people in our sport had to cross something that takes them on a path you could go either right or left,'' he said. ''You come to a fork in the road and you can either sit back and listen and try to understand how our sport works better, or you can become stubborn-headed and not accept anything. I'm not saying that this is a good situation, but I have learned a lot from it.''

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