Great Expectations

Posted: Thursday, August 02, 2001

SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- Spectacular doughnuts and clouds of white tire smoke have become a trademark of young Kevin Harvick.

His victory celebrations have been every bit as breathtaking as his driving style. So young to be so cool, Harvick's quick adjustment to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series conjures memories of another relentless talent who also had a knack for turning Sunday afternoon drives into something just short of a dog fight.

Harvick was hired in February to replace Dale Earnhardt, who died on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Little did anybody know he would emulate the seven-time champion in so many ways, including his ability to dominate an event.

While he's developed his own niche on the senior circuit, his passion and willingness to sling the GM Goodwrench Chevrolet around a race track have been a fitting tribute to Earnhardt. Harvick certainly has his own style, but it's hauntingly similar to the driver everyone called ''The Intimidator.''

''I knew the first time I saw him that he was the real deal,'' said car owner Richard Childress. ''He's got that natural ability that only comes along every once in a while. That's why I hired him. He doesn't back down and he drives the wheels off. He does things that people can't believe. He's made his own name in racing, and he's got his own ways of doing things. They're alike in some ways, but they're different in a lot of ways.

''The biggest comparison I can see is they both know how to win.''

Harvick has made meteoric progress to one of the most coveted rides on the Winston Cup circuit. He had successful seasons in local late models, Southwest Tour, Winston West, NASCAR Craftsman Truck and the NASCAR Busch series winning rookie-of-the-year honors at each step before earning the promotion to the most visible ride in Winston Cup.

''I've been in this sport 30-odd years, and you see only a couple great ones come along,'' Childress said. ''I think he's got everything it's going to take to be on stage (as the Winston Cup champion) in New York one day.''

For now, Harvick is enjoying his wild ride.

''I'm feeling a lot more comfortable as I gain seat time,'' Harvick said. ''I'm just kind of going with the flow and getting in the groove of doing what I have to do. I've been learning the ins and outs in the garage area.''

Cutting doughnuts along in front of the main grandstands and filling the air with caustic tire smoke came naturally. His enthusiasm after the race is electric. This is no bumpkin enamored by the bright lights of stardom. He races and wins, like it's part of a grand scheme to become the sport's next Jeff Gordon, who joined the circuit in 1993 as the next Dale Earnhardt.

And at 25, he's still only learning. His best racing miles are in the future. He was supposed to drive full time on the NASCAR Busch Series this year, and those plans didn't end when Earnhardt got killed. He's trying to become the only man to compete full time on both circuits at the same time. More impressive, he's likely to be a top-10 driver in both.

''I still need experience,'' he said. ''I've learned a ton since I've come over here (from the Busch Series). I've learned you shouldn't try to win the race in the first 100 laps. I've learned to make the best out of every weekend.''

Harvick set rookie records in 2000 in the Busch Series for victories (three), money ($995,274) and laps led (665). Now, he's rewriting the Winston Cup Series record book by winning his third career start a victory that came 21 days after Earnhardt died and required a photo finish at Atlanta and by winning twice in his first 17 starts. That included a win at the new Chicagoland Speedway last month.

''Right now, I think we just need to unleash everything we can to try and knock records down and try to do whatever comes to mind,'' Harvick said. ''It's been the craziest year of my life, and things have just been off the wall so far. It's pretty cool, but we also understand that there's a realistic factor in here somewhere that has to take place.

''My father taught me a long time ago that there would be situations in my life that I wouldn't know how to deal with. And he told me just to deal with them the best I could. It's an overwhelming situation. The race fans have taken me in with open arms and understand that I can't replace Dale Earnhardt.''

Replace him? No. Help us move on? Absolutely.

REACH Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.



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