Harvick Crashes Rookie Party

Kurt Busch, Ron Hornaday, Casey Atwood, Jason Leffler and Andy Houston all appeared to have an equal shot at the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Rookie of the Year Award prior to the start of the 2001 season.

But then... suddenly... along came Kevin Harvick. And the way Harvick has been running so far in the No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevy, the others seem to be fighting a losing battle.

Harvick holds an 87-76 lead over Busch early into the rookie race, with Hornaday third (71), Atwood fourth (67), Leffler fifth (51) and Houston sixth (47).

Having to learn the ins and outs of the series - and adapt to running against the best stock-car drivers in the world - rookies are prone to struggling. With the exception of Harvick, all have done so for the most part.

Despite having missed a race, Harvick is running 12th in the Winston Cup points standings heading into the Talladega event on Sunday. The highlight of his season so far has been his thrilling photo-finish victory over Jeff Gordon at Atlanta, only his third Winston Cup race after taking over the seat of the GM Goodwrench Chevy for the late Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in a racing accident at Daytona.

Harvick was supposed to run a limited Winston Cup schedule this season for Richard Childress Racing, but has emerged as the newcomer to beat.

“This rookie deal has been really shaken up by Kevin jumping into a real competitive car like he has,” said Busch, who is 31st in the overall points standings with two top-10 finishes. “It was going to be interesting to see which rookie was going to come out of the first 10 or so races up front. So far, we’ve struggled and everybody besides Kevin has too, but I knew Harvick could drive. He’d had a tough time in the truck series before he came to drive for Richard Childress in the Busch Series. With the team and the type of ride he’s got now, and with the level of experience he’s raced at before, he’s fit in perfectly.

“I knew he’d do well and be competitive wherever he ended up. He was in the Busch Series for two years and the trucks for three, so that’s five years of experience at a high level. This is only my second.”

Leffler, who has failed to qualify for two races and is 40th in points, is also impressed with Harvick’s season to date.

“I’ve known Kevin for a long time, and he’s doing a good job,” Leffler said. “He showed that last year when he won three races in the Busch Series.”

Harvick has been the highest-finishing rookie on four occasions, and Ron Hornaday, Busch, Atwood and Leffler have done so once each this year.

Busch, who moved up to Winston Cup after only one year in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, agrees his transformation between the different types of body styles has taken some getting used to.

“It’s really just a matter of me getting adapted to these cars,” Busch said. “We haven’t run up toward the front anywhere as much as we’ve needed to. We ran well at Las Vegas and Atlanta, but for me and the other rookies it’s a matter of us being consistent at every track we go to. That’s what the veterans are doing and what rookies try to do, so we’ve got to work on that.

“I need to figure out the feel of these cars more and know what to ask to have changed verses the trucks. The aerodynamics are the biggest difference with the Winston Cup cars.”

Leffler anticipated his first foray into Winston Cup would be a difficult one. He spent only one year in the Busch Series (in 2000) after a solid early career in open-wheel cars.

“I’m disappointed, but I don’t have anyone to blame but myself,” Leffler said. “I’ve learned some lessons, and that’s what this year is going to be about. I wanted to make all the races so I can get as much experience as I can. It’s a tough deal. I’m sure if I’d have stayed in the Busch Series I’d be a lot further along. When you switch teams, it just takes a good portion of the year to start jelling, and that’s what we’re going through.

“I’m just trying to gain experience and earn respect. I want to do that without getting in anybody’s way. That’s kind of tough, but it’s just what you have to do.”

Atwood’s first season with Ray Evernham Motorsports hit an unexpected bump when he failed to qualify for the race at Atlanta. The driver of the No. 19 Dodge Intrepid has yet to finish in the Top 10 and is 34th in the points standings.

Hornaday, who finished second to Harvick in the Busch Series rookie-of-the-year chase in 2000, has had his brilliant moments, but they’ve been few and far between. The driver of A.J. Foyt’s No. 14 Conseco Pontiac is 33rd in overall points and has one top-10 finish (ninth at Las Vegas).

The rookie that has perhaps struggled the most is Houston. He and his No. 96 McDonald’s Ford team have failed to qualify for three of the eight races so far this season, relegating Houston to 42nd place in points.

In what could be a bad sign for the other rookies, Harvick heads into Sundnay's race with an RCR team that’s won 10 times at the 2.66-mile Alabama track.

“The team is ready for this one,” Harvick said. “The guys on the team look forward to the superspeedway tracks much more than any other place we go. The car and how we do in the race is really all about them. There’s only so much a driver can do to control how good the car is at these places. There are a bunch of factors like aerodynamics and horsepower and everything else, that if they don’t come together, you’re not going to win. It’s more exciting for the guys.

"If there’s a team that can take someone who has never raced under the new package and get them a win, it’s this one. They’re just awesome at superspeedways. Their record says it all.”

So far, Harvick’s record has said a lot about his worth as a driver.

“Kevin can pull off a Top 10 (in the overall standings) this year if he keeps his nose clean,” Busch says. “That car was ready to win the championship this year. When you’re a rookie, you're generally trying to get experience and stay out of the way. But when you’re in a fast car like that, you can’t stay out of the way.”

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