Three days after his friend and mentor died at Daytona, 25-year-old Kevin Harvick arrived for work in a job he really didn’t want.

“I went into the trailer, and at first I couldn’t bring myself to put my gear in his locker,” Harvick says. “It just didn’t seem right. I had to fight with myself to do it.”

The racing world was still in shock from Dale Earnhardt’s death in the final lap of the Daytona 500 when Harvick was named to replace him at Richard Childress Racing.

“Richard called and I told him I would do whatever the team needed me to do,” he says.

Immediately Harvick went from being an emerging talent in the Busch Series to among the most recognizable faces in NASCAR.

It is the face of a clean-cut kid who grew up knowing he wanted to race. He could be a poster boy for everything good about motorsports. Handsome. Articulate. Successful. And still humble.

Fans crowd around the rear of both his Winston Cup and Busch Series transporters, pleading for an autograph or a quick picture.

“It can be pretty overwhelming,” Harvick says.

The rush was especially strong at California Speedway during his first “homecoming” to Southern California in the spring. “There’s just so many family and friends here,” he says. “There’s just so little time for everything.”

Beginnings

For Harvick, Southern California is where it all began.

His first memory of a race car was the view from behind bars in his dad’s garage.

“We didn’t have much money,” Harvick says. “My folks set up a playpen in my father’s race shop.”

“We spent a lot of time together,” says his father, Mike Harvick, who works as a fireman and runs Mike’s Motorsports in Bakersfield. “When he was real small, most of that was babysitting.”

“I was either in the playpen or putting parts on the cars where they probably didn’t belong,” Kevin says.

So while other kids were learning their ABCs from Sesame Street, young Kevin Harvick was being schooled in carb jetting and suspension settings.

For his kindergarten graduation, his dad gave him a go-kart. Kevin spent the next 10 years racing go-karts on local road courses.

“I don’t think there’s a better way to learn,” Kevin says. “You learn car control, weight transfer, how to drive in traffic, how to make the best use of the power you have.”

The karting experience headed him toward an interest in open-wheel cars that go both left and right.

“I grew up watching the Indy 500 and dreaming of someday racing in it,” he says. “But dad was into stock cars, so that’s what he built for me when it was time to move up. I guess now that isn’t such a bad thing.”

Stock Cars

“It was the stock car shop that paid for his racing,” Mike says. “We had to work to race. We built stock cars, so that’s what we raced.”

The move from a tiny go-kart to a fully prepared NASCAR Late Model as soon as he turned 16 was a huge leap. Actually, it may have been slightly before that.

“We might have snuck him (in) a little early,” Mike says.

Kevin made his Late Model debut at Mesa Marin Speedway in Bakersfield. Marion Collins, who runs the track and is a longtime friend of the Harvick family, says he expected to see the young Harvick racing there one day.

“He was always hanging around the track,” Collins says. “I think I’ve known him since he was five or six.”

Collins calls Harvick his “rent-a-kid” because he used to borrow the youngster to go to Disney movies when his own youngsters got too old to enjoy the shows.

“He started racing here when he was still in school,” says Collins. “Mike and Kevin worked together on the cars. His dad was with him right up until Kevin started to get offers of rides. Mike’s a fantastic chassis man.”

“I don’t remember my first drive in the Late Model,” Kevin says, “But I’m pretty sure I crashed it. If I didn’t, it was one of the few races that first year I didn’t tear it up.”

“There was a time when Kevin was just beginning that I wondered if either one of us were going to survive the first season. He tore up stuff every night,” says Mike. “When he was 15 he didn’t do anything but wreck. One time he wrecked and caught on fire. I think that one got his attention.”

“I guess it was just that my dad kept telling me what not to do ... then I’d turn around and do it. And then I’d wreck the car,” Kevin jokes.

Opportunities

Eventually, Kevin figured out that you had to finish to win, and he began doing that on a regular basis. He became a popular young standout at Mesa Marin, winning a championship there in his second year. He ran some races in NASCAR’s Featherlite Southwest Series, a regional touring division for Late Models, and he was good enough to get an offer for a one-time ride in the Craftsman Truck Series.

Soon, Kevin’s talent exceeded the family budget.

“We didn’t have the money to afford to take him where he wanted to go,” Mike says. “The only way he was going to make a career of this was to move on to a professional team. I understood that.”

Harvick was running Late Models at Mesa Marin when he was spotted by an engine builder for Spears Racing.

“We were going to run a second truck and put him in it. I don’t remember how he did, but I remember he finished in the Top 10 in the next race,” says Spears Racing’s Al Hoffman. “We decided that we liked him. We knew he had a lot of talent and he sure could drive.”

“Once he got comfortable in a vehicle, he was a serious contender,” Hoffman says. “Having Kevin around made everyone want to work for him.”

Learning Curve

Ron Hornaday Jr. has raced against Harvick in the Featherlite Southwest Series, Craftsman Truck Series, Busch Series and now in the Winston Cup Series.

“He hasn’t changed a bit,” Hornaday says. “He always drove hard and went for the win. He still does.”

Hoffman says that Harvick has changed in the level of experience and his ability to tell a crew what he needs.

“There were times he just couldn’t be specific enough for us to help him with the truck,” he says. “It is something that just takes time to learn.”

Harvick was just a bit better than a mid-pack driver in the Craftsman Truck Series. He failed to either win or take a pole in 69 starts. He recorded nine Top-5 finishes and nine more in the Top 10.

“He always ran flat out in the trucks,” says Stacy Compton, also a veteran of the truck series who races against Kevin in Winston Cup. “He was pretty wild sometimes ... but I guess we all were in the truck series.

“He’s really changed since then. Now he knows you have to finish to win.”

“I think Kevin was better than his equipment,” adds Greg Biffle, who shared the track with Harvick in the truck series and is battling with him this season in the Busch Series. “I think it was a case that he didn’t have enough experience and his team didn’t have the same resources as some of the others.”

Harvick also ended up being spread thin.

“He really wanted to drive cars,” remembers Hoffman. So to keep their young driver in their truck, Spears Manufacturing added a car for the Winston West Series.

Harvick ran 52 races in 1998, at times running a Winston West race on Friday night and taking the “red eye” flight across the country to compete in the Craftsman Truck Series at an eastern track like Bristol.

“Kevin learned patience,” Hoffman says. “And he learned to take it easy on the equipment. He ran the entire Winston West Series on one car.”

Not only did he run it, he took the championship with five wins in 14 starts. Eleven of his finishes were in the Top 10.

Enter Richard Childress

It was that kind of performance that attracted attention from Richard Childress in 1999.

“We were at Martinsville when Richard Childress asked me about racing for him,” Kevin says. “I was in the Porter Cable truck and still wasn’t doing really well. The trucks were a great opportunity, but I never was on a team that had the same resources the big ones had.

“He asked me if I’d be interested in doing the Busch Series for him. I guess he figured out that I could drive better than the results showed.”

In 31 Busch Series starts, Harvick collected three wins, two poles and finished third in the points to become the 2000 Rookie of the Year. He finished 16 races—that’s 50 percent—in the Top 10.

“Along the way he developed the brains to go along with his guts,” says Harvick’s dad.

He also ended up doing a lot of testing for Earnhardt.

“It wasn’t supposed to be part of the job at first,” Kevin says. But it worked out well for the team.

Kevin could work with the Earnhardt crew while “The Intimidator” took care of his business interests, mentoring his son and developing his own DEI team. “The whole plan was that when Dale retired, he would have someone ready to step in,” Kevin says.

So when Childress picked him to fill in for Earnhardt, it made sense. He had already turned thousands of laps in Earnhardt’s Monte Carlo.

“The team knew me and we had worked a lot together,” he says. “They had a pretty good idea of what I need in the car. I think my driving style and Dale’s was pretty close. That’s why I could work with the team on his car.

“It made the transition a lot easier.”

Earnhardt’s Shadow

Still, it was difficult to try to replace a man who is irreplaceable. Some fans wondered if this youngster with the Eagle Scout poster boy looks could do the job.

He answered them three races later when he won at Atlanta, holding off a charging Jeff Gordon for the win. Kevin did a “Polish Victory Lap” in honor of his friend and mentor, and to compose himself before facing the crowds and cameras.

He says Earnhardt’s death meant the loss of a mentor to him.

“But there’s a lot of guys on the team who help,” he says. “Richard Childress has probably had the most impact. He’s taught me how to drive for points. I used to drive for laps. Sometimes I forget or get excited and I still do. But that doesn’t get you a lot of wins.

“My dad used to tell me that, but I never paid any attention to him.”

Kevin wants to be the top rookie in Winston Cup and challenge for the championship in the Busch Series. He says there’s still a lot of expectations— some of them higher than they should be —on him and the team.

“There’s a lot of people who still want to believe Dale’s still in the car. They expect the same results. I think that will go away with time.

“I’m still a rookie in Winston Cup,” he says. “The team has a lot of experience, so they expect more from us than if we were all beginning this together. I think that a lot of fans outside maybe expect too much. I think the expectation inside the team is realistic.”

The car’s colors are different. The number has been changed. But inside, it is still Dale’s car. Kevin says he still feels Earnhardt’s presence in it every time he buckles in for a race.

“It will always be Dale’s car,” Kevin says. “This will always be the team that he and Richard Childress built over all those years.

“And that’s not a bad thing.”