Meeting Great Expectations

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When Kevin Harvick won at Atlanta Motor Speedway earlier this year – in his third NASCAR Winston Cup race – many had him pegged as a future superstar in the series.

Four months later, Dale Earnhardt’s replacement has done nothing to dispel that talk, and Sunday’s Tropicana 400 victory at Chicagoland Speedway cemented his place among the elite drivers on the circuit.

“Like I was telling a lot of people when we hired him, I said, 'Kevin Harvick is the real deal,'" car owner Richard Childress said. "Unfortunately we’ve had some tough times. At California, between (crew chief) Kevin (Hamlin) and I, we run him out of gas and hurt the engine there. But we’ve had some really strong runs. If you saw his performance (Sunday) and (Saturday), that answers any questions about his driving ability.”

Not that anyone was questioning his ability in the months after the Atlanta victory, but perhaps Harvick started to sense the pressure of living up to the expectations he created. Perhaps the constant questions about his decision to run for the Busch Series title and compete full time in Winston Cup had worn on him.

Whatever the reason, Harvick brought up the subject of people questioning his talents after the victory Sunday, saying he hopes the Chicago triumph proves he’s not a “flash in the pan.”

“Nobody’s really put any pressure on me,” Harvick said. “We can only go out and do the things we know how to do... the biggest thing that everybody has to understand is that you can’t replace Dale Earnhardt.

“There’s a lot of responsibility that does come with the car and the sponsor and the RCR organization. Those are little things that put a little bit of pressure on you, but the biggest thing is Richard and everybody keeps it so relaxed and comfortable that you do the things you know how to do and drive the race car.”

It’s certainly clear that Harvick can drive a race car very well. He’s put himself in seventh in the points standings – even though he missed the season-opening race. And he’s done all that in the large shadow of Earnhardt.

“I don’t know that anybody compares to Dale Earnhardt,” Harvick said.

Of course, the Harvick-Earnhardt comparisons are obvious, given Harvick was the guy who took Earnhardt’s seat. Perhaps the Chicago victory also put Harvick on his own pedestal, one that he doesn’t have to share with Earnhardt.

“This is a lot different because we were going through a lot of emotions and ups and downs when we won Atlanta,” Harvick said. “It was only our third race, and we were still in shock over the fact that Dale Earnhardt was gone.

“But now, we’ve got some races under our belt and some more time has passed. And with Junior’s win last week at Daytona, this helps us to get closure. That’s not to say that we don’t miss Dale, or to diminish what has happened in any way, but as time goes by we are more able to focus on what we need to do.

“Personally, I don’t mind everything being 'in memory of' because this is 'in memory of.' Dale Earnhardt is the reason that we’re racing. And we want to do the best we can for him. That was our goal – to go out and win as many races as possible and to run as good as we could. That’s what he would have wanted us to do, and right now he’d be pretty proud of us for paying attention, running up front and not giving up on any part of it. At this point, you can think whatever you want because I don’t mind. He’s the reason we’re here.”

Earnhardt helped establish Richard Childress Racing as one of the top teams in NASCAR, and Harvick is helping carry on that tradition. Earnhardt’s first victory with RCR was in 1984 – and he won twice that season. Harvick has already matched that first-season total.

“Each one has special moments and special times,” Childress said. “I still remember walking to the press box in Talladega in l984 when we won our first race. And today we walked here, but it wasn’t as far. They are two great drivers.”

How great can Harvick become? Childress said Harvick is a championship driver.

“I’ve been in this sport 30 some-odd years and you see the greats come along,” Childress said. “He has everything it’s going to take to be on the stage in New York one day.”

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