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Ten years on: The Earnhardt legacy...and the man who has had to try to fill those shoes

Kevin Harvick: the best driver in NASCAR in 2010...and back in black for 2011. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   This sometimes sleepy, sometimes rowdy town is jam-packed with history...a history that springs back to life early every February when haulers and campers, racers and fans, all roll in for SpeedWeeks and the legendary Daytona 500.
   And on this 10th anniversary, the legacy of the late Dale Earnhardt -- and many of his war stories -- will be back in the fore.

   For nearly 20 years, the Daytona classic proved maddeningly elusive for the man maybe the best driver in stock car history. Then in 1998 he finally won it, after so many bitter disappointments.
   And then in 2001, on the last lap, while he was watching his son Dale Jr. battling teammate Michael Waltrip for the win  – both driving for the company that Earnhardt himself had formed – Earnhardt was killed in a fourth turn crash.
   Since then this sport has changed dramatically.
   For more than 50 years now this place has been the place for stock car racing purists and fanatics, and it will be once again, with new racing pavement to add more than a few twists to the looming drama.  The old beach course, on the far side of the Halifax River, may now have long since vanished in a sea of high-dollar beach mansions and yet more trendy condos, down by those classic Ponce Inlet raw oyster joints. And Smokey's Best Damn Garage in Town, over near Main Street, has faded into obscurity.
   But out here by the airport, where International Speedway Blvd. has become the 'new' Daytona downtown, and where the eerie blue of that new glassy NASCAR high-rise presides over a seemingly endless urban stream of Targets and Home Depots and restaurants and stores, all jammed on top of each other from the hospital west to the I-95 gateway, speed – with daring -- is still king.


   Jimmie Johnson edging Kevin Harvick in a photofinish to their 2010 SpeedWeeks 150 duel. And the two battled for the NASCAR championship right down to the wire too (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Dodge teammates Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch broke the 198 mark in Saturday afternoon two-car drafts, Keselowski at 198.605 mph. Toyota drivers were also quick again; Joey Logano hooked up in a two-car draft with teammate Denny Hamlin at 197.516 mph.
   But it's still not quite clear who has what for the season opener. Ford drivers kept pretty low-keyed, for one. And no big drafts ever materialized, which was rather surprising, since speeds are expected to get even faster the more men in a draft.
   Of course this may indeed be just another Talladega-type carnival, unpredictable. And with the possibility, likelihood even, of three green-white-checkered sprints at the finish, well, maybe drivers simply don't really see the need to get too worked up quite yet.
   Daytona's spiffy-smooth new asphalt should take handling out of the game here and turn the season opener into a Talladega chess match. "Just put the speed in your car and play the game," Kevin Harvick says of his game plan.
   And teammate Clint Bowyer showed the fastest car here this week in single-car runs, so Harvick looks to be on target in speed. Bowyer in fact didn't even stick around for Saturday's final testing runs; he and others loaded up Friday night and hit the road back to North Carolina.
   Indeed, it was a strange three-day test session, NASCAR's first such major test session in three years. Computers dominated the landscape. And teams will spend the next several days back home running computer simulations for the 500.
     Big pack drafts weren't popular during testing, for some reason. Either drivers were too worried about tearing up their equipment, or something else was afoot.

    Teammates: Clint Bowyer (L), winner at Talladega last fall, fastest in single-car runs during Daytona 500 testing. And Kevin Harvick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Harvick: "We came with a checklist -- don't care what the scoreboard says.
    "We're not going to draft. They learned what they needed to learn at the tire test, with (teammates) Paul (Menard) and Jeff (Burton).
    "You're going to get plenty of time SpeedWeeks to do whatever you want; practice is not going to be at a premium like it used to be here, because you don't have to worry about the tires, you don't have to worry about handling. You just have to play the game and try to get yourself in position, and get the most speed out of your car you can.
    "It's unbelievable the amount of time and preparation that go into these particular cars. A normal race car, you can put a body on in four days; these particular cars probably take twice that long just in the fab shop.
    "And these cars all run through the wind tunnel once or twice at a minimum, and then you usually run them somewhere in the desert.
     "There are just hours upon hours put into these cars.
    "So when you tear one up, you're looking at putting yourself behind a month on one car."


    Again, a man in black. Kevin Harvick's Daytona 500 car this year is expected to be black...as in mean and tough. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Kevin Harvick....was at the center of that maelstrom 10 years ago.
    It was here, right here, in a moment as sudden as a bolt from the blue, that this sport was changed so dramatically.
    The 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death....and the 10th anniversary of Kevin Harvick being so suddenly plucked from obscurity to take over the legendary ride with Richard Childress.
    As the man who had the best overall record on the Sprint Cup tour in 2010, though not winning the championship, Harvick will be a man to watch. He won the Daytona 500 in 2007, and he's going for a third straight Shootout victory.
    Having to take over Earnhardt's ride back in 2001 was a daunting task.
    Harvick concedes he didn't feel very comfortable in that role for several years.
    "I was very uncomfortable with it in the beginning, didn't like it, didn't want to be a part of it.
    "But over the last three or four years, I've learned to become more comfortable. The biggest reason is we've been able to accomplish a lot of things on our own.
    "That day was tough for everybody...for the whole sport.
    "But as we look back 10 years, when you look at the safety of the tracks and the safety of the cars and the attention that NASCAR has paid to those things, that have changed really the racing world. Not just NASCAR, the world of racing, from top to bottom.
    "Those are the positives now, out of something so devastating.
    "A lot of things changed on that day...."

     Harvick himself, too.
     "I went into 2000 and we never had anything. We had always beat my own path as we went along.
    "We got to 2001, and you're planning on racing for a championship in the Nationwide series and running a few Cup races...and then it all changed.
    "Instantly it's like everybody knows your name, everybody knows what you're doing.
    "A lot of times when you come into something new, you have time to learn. You have time to learn what you're supposed to say, when you're supposed to do things, how you're supposed to do it.
    "We went into that situation --- and you start off with the biggest press conference you'll ever have in your whole career, and you have more fans than you'll ever have, and you don't know how to manage your time, you don't know how to manage your money, you don't know what to say....
    "All of a sudden you have all that stuff at once.
    "So instantly I put up my defense.
   "I was 25 and didn't really know exactly what direction that life was going to go. And then instantly you had everything you wanted -- but you didn't have to do anything for it.
   "So it just didn't all make sense to me."
    As the years went by, Harvick says he eventually became more comfortable with that role. With a caveat: "You just happened to be in that car -- and that car is important to the sport."
    Earnhardt and team owner Richard Childress won six championships together. But their last was 1994.
    Which makes Harvick's nearly successful bid last season so important in the grand scheme of things.

    And, yes, Kevin Harvick has almost turned mellow over the last year or so....after that miserable 2009, when he came close to packing up and quitting.
    That nightmare season: "You can still remember that. And I think that's a lot of what drives the whole company, including myself. You don't want to experience 2009 all over again."
    That said, Harvick has moved on, and last season he established himself early on as the man to beat for the championship, a role he could well complete this season.
    At 35, with 14 tour wins, and a knack for restrictor plate racing, Harvick says "It's all about winning a championship at this point, nothing else.
    "Nothing else is good enough at this particular point in time.
    "It's great to have a good year...and we had a good year (three wins in 2010).
    "But in the end it's all about taking home the one trophy we don't have.
     "It's been a long time for Richard...a long time..."

  A pensive Kevin Harvick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Not only did Harvick make an excellent run at the title last season, he was remarkably consistent through the whole 36 races.
    "The last 10 weeks last year taught us a lot about who we were, and who we need to be, and what we need to do to race for those championship...because it's just different.
    "And to keep that level for 10 weeks is something we'd never done before.
    "Whether we win or lose again, you still know in your mind how it needs to go.
    "It's a different level."
    And as a constant reminder of the big picture, Harvick says wryly that he's changed his phone code to 4848.
    "So I don't forget who I have to beat."

    But that reckoning won't come till the fall. First comes this 500.
    And SpeedWeeks carries a special aura, invading the garage, indeed the entire massive infield, like some ghostly spirit.
   "This is not just another racetrack," Harvick says, almost reverently.
    "This is our biggest race. This is the backbone of our sport.
    "There's no comparing it to any other race.
    "The anticipation coming into the Daytona 500 every year is bigger than any other race, times 10.
    "You have a whole winter of anticipation...you have your shiniest, best new car...everybody has everything brand new. And it's the best that anybody will be prepared the whole season.
     "There's no better feeling than getting through Speedweeks and rolling to that green flag."

 The HANS device. Head-and-neck restraint. One of the great safety innovations to come out of Dale Earnhardt's death (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Just what is the Earnhardt

Just what is the Earnhardt legacy, anyway? People seem to be assuming that the HANS device, SAFER, etc. would never have come about without his death - and even with that the sport has continued to not look at credible alternatives/supplements to them where they may exist; certainly taking 20-plus MPH out of the speed of the cars would work better than installing more SAFER barriers (what need exists for overall speeds and/or trap speeds reaching 190 anywhere, anyway?), and the sport's attitude has definately changed - now it's like everyone's afraid to take risks.

If that's the case, then the Earnhardt legacy can't be considered a positive one.

Also irritating is the revisionist history that has sprung up after his death. First there is the myth that "When Earnhardt spoke, NASCAR listened." The proponents of this catchphrase have never offered one policy battle with NASCAR that Earnhardt ever won; the phrase is used by message boarders in the apparent belief that Earnhardt would somehow have forced NASCAR to abandon bad ideas had he lived.

Second is the irritating whitewashing of Earnhardt's on-track thuggery - the kind of driving people rightly rip Carl Edwards etc. for was his forte - the Brad Keselowski melee at Gateway, for one, was reminiscent of what Earnhardt did to Ward Burton at Homestead in 2000, and people instantly forgot the savagery of booing of Earnhardt after the Volunteer 500 in August 1999.

Ten years on what is needed is a more objective and I dare say honest look at Earnhardt from the varied racing coverage venues.

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