Kevin Harvick bent down to pick up his Busch series championship trophy and almost threw his back out. The glistening silver cup weighed close to 100 pounds, and Harvick wasn't prepared for it.
Once he got it off the ground and held it high enough for everyone to see, the 25-year-old driver felt as if the weight of the world had just been lifted off his shoulders.
For Harvick, the trophy marked the high point of an emotional, bumpy season that turned the raw rookie into a champion.
''This one year has felt like five, I swear,'' Harvick said. ''There were times when I didn't want to be at the race track, when I didn't even want to leave the house. One look at that trophy makes it all worth it -- everything we did, everything we sacrificed, everything we struggled with, it just wipes it all away.''
No one has grown more and had to do it under as much scrutiny as Harvick has this season. As the replacement driver for the late Dale Earnhardt, every decision he made was studied, every mistake magnified.
When the Winston Cup schedule concludes after races Sunday in Homestead, Fla., and two more dates, he'll be the first driver in NASCAR history to compete in the sport's two top series. He'll have added the Winston Cup rookie of the year title to the Busch championship he wrapped up last weekend at North Carolina Speedway, and he'll probably finish in the top 10 in the Cup standings.
He did it all in a season of on-the-job training, when Harvick learned the hard way there was little room for error.
''No one on that track wants to cut anyone any slack, everyone wants to be the one to put the rookie in his place,'' car owner Richard Childress said. ''It's always been that way, but the neat thing about Kevin is he's not one to take it. He's going to fight back and earn his respect.
''Maybe there were different ways he could have handled certain situations, but it took him some time to realize how big a magnifying glass he was under.''
That's what happens when everything changes in the blink of an eye, as it did when Earnhardt was killed in an accident on the final lap of the season-opening Daytona 500.
Harvick, discovered by Earnhardt and delivered to Childress as his eventual successor, was watching the race on TV at home in North Carolina. In an instant, everything changed.
Instead of simply running in the Busch series this season, Harvick was bumped up to Winston Cup to fill Earnhardt's void. That alone was a daunting task, but combined with also running in the Busch series, it was enormous.
Harvick thought he could pull it off easily, and at first it seemed like he would. He made his Cup debut in Rockingham, N.C., in February, finishing a respectable 14th. Two weeks later, he got his first victory, earning respect from his fellow competitors and a legion of Earnhardt fans desperate to find a replacement for their favorite driver.
But the highs were short-lived. As the season wore on, Harvick got tired and sometimes a little irritable. And his aggressiveness and unapologetic nature -- the characteristics Earnhardt spotted in him and the fans saw as a reminder of The Intimidator -- began to annoy his peers.
Soon, he was bumping and banging all over the track, earning unkind words from many NASCAR veterans. It hit its low point in September, when Bobby Hamilton, angry about contact the two had on the track, accused Harvick of trying to be Earnhardt.
A few months ago, Harvick might have answered back. But in a season of growth, he's found that the best approach is to keep his head high and say little.
''The biggest lesson I've learned this year is to keep my mouth shut because nobody wants to hear a driver gripe and act like a baby,'' he said. ''That's hard to do when people say hurtful things like I'm trying to be Dale Earnhardt.
''That's just disrespectful to the situation all of us are in. There's not a person in this organization that wouldn't take Dale back in a heartbeat. None of us asked for any of this.''
And no one knew what to expect, especially Childress, who wasn't even sure he still wanted to be part of the sport after Earnhardt's death.
Waking up the day after Earnhardt's memorial service and making the trip to Rockingham for the next race was the hardest thing he ever did. When he went back last week, with Harvick on the verge of winning the Busch title, things had eased considerably.
''If Kevin had gone out there this year and not been able to achieve our goals in the Busch series and struggled to make Cup races and had been just running laps, this year would have been a nightmare,'' Childress said. ''But the way he pulled this off, it helped everyone go on.''
And so they went full circle last weekend, with Harvick wrapping up his title on the same track where Earnhardt earned his record-tying seventh and final championship.
As Childress and Harvick stood side by side, each with a hand on the heavy Busch series trophy, they knew they had persevered through what will undoubtedly be the toughest year of Harvick's career.
''It's OK to be tired and it's OK to be drained because we raced this year for things that need to be raced for -- for RCR and for Dale Earnhardt and for what they built,'' Harvick said. ''So to do this for them, and to make it through for them, the only thing I feel now is satisfaction.''
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