Ibanquet Countdown:/I Kevin Harvick

Forgive Kevin Harvick for wanting to take a little siesta after all he’s been through during the 2001 NASCAR season.

Say, perhaps a six-or-seven-month nap ought to do it.

Harvick certainly wouldn’t do that, but no one could blame him for wanting to. After running a full season in both the Winston Cup and Busch Series, making endless sponsor appearances for both his teams, and traveling thousands and thousands of miles, he certainly deserves a break.

“I’m really burned out right now,” said Harvick, who not only won the Busch Series championship, but also completed one of the most successful rookie campaigns in the Winston Cup Series. “It’s over now, and we’re really starting to see the benefits of everything we’ve done.

“After the (Winston Cup post-season) banquet in New York (Friday), we’re (he and his wife, Delana) not going to go anywhere or do much of anything. We haven’t stayed at home very much lately, and that’s something we’d really like to do, to get reacquainted with the place. I’m tired and I know Delana is from all of the traveling, so we’d just like to take some time and relax and not to have worry about racing or much of anything else.”

That is, before pre-season testing begins in January at Daytona and Talladega, then it’s back to the grind for Harvick. Only next year, he’ll concentrate solely on Winston Cup, with the exception of maybe a handful of Busch Series events, if he feels up to it.

In retrospect, however, one cannot help but marvel at what Harvick accomplished during the 2001 season. He was certainly one of the leading contenders to win the Busch Series title, and he was to prepare for his rookie campaign in Winston Cup in 2002 with a few races at NASCAR’s highest level.

That was prior to the final lap of the Daytona 500, when Dale Earnhardt was tragically killed. In a most unfortunate situation, Harvick was thrust into the seat of the GM Goodwrench Chevy on a full-time basis, and later he and team owner Richard Childress determined that Harvick would attempt to run a full-season in both Busch and Winston Cup.

A first ever Busch championship for Childress was a major priority, and Harvick was determined to give that to his team owner.

“At that time, we didn’t really have time to think about anything,” Harvick said. “We got in the car and we went week to week. Race, race, race and test, test, test. I didn’t have time to think about anything at all.

“Now that I’ve had a little time to think about it, we probably shouldn’t have done all that we probably shouldn’t have made it through all that, but we did. Everybody worked really well together and there were a lot of people involved. We really haven’t had time to sit back and dwell on whether we had the confidence to do it or not. But I’m a pretty confident person.”

It’s a good thing. In his first ever Winston Cup event, Harvick turned a lot of heads when he finished 14th at Rockingham, and then followed that up with an eighth-place run at Las Vegas. It was what happened the following week, however, that proved to be one of the more emotional moments of the season.

In the final few laps of the Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Harvick put himself in position to win, showing no fear at times racing door-to-door with Jeff Gordon. Harvick and Gordon battled to a thrilling finish, with Harvick tacking the checkered flag in only the third Winston Cup race of his life.

“When we raced at Atlanta the first time, it was still like the eerie Rockingham feeling (in his first Cup start),” Harvick said. “You just didn’t know how to react to things. Winning at Atlanta was just one of those feelings in life you just can’t describe. With us losing Dale and then coming back to win so early, it was unbelievable. To beat Jeff Gordon like that was unbelievable. Words couldn’t describe it.”

“It’s been a real emotional rollercoaster for the entire RCR team,” Childress said. “We were at the lowest point anyone could be at Daytona on Feb. 18. To come back in Atlanta and win that race, that was the greatest thing for our whole sport. For Kevin to win that race, that’s what the fans needed and that’s what the sport needed. We went on a high. We had our highs and lows the entire year.”

Harvick came back to earth in Winston Cup competition over the next couple of months with only one top-10 finish in his next eight starts, but a second-place run at Charlotte and another top-10 the following week at Dover vaulted Harvick into the Top 10 of the Winston Cup standings, where he stayed for the remainder of the season.

A second Winston Cup victory came in the inaugural Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, solidifying his rookie season as one of the best in the sport’s history.

All the while, during the summer months, he was forced to travel from venue to venue for both Busch and Cup events, logging several thousand miles and keeping up a brutal schedule. One weekend, he traveled back and forth from Pocono, Pa., to Colorado Springs, Colo., the site of the Busch Series event at Pikes Peak International Raceway.

His Busch Series results didn’t falter, and he kept racking up victories and padding his cushion in the points standings. It wasn’t until September that the schedule he was keeping appeared to wear on him, and his Busch Series results began to take a hit.

However, he stayed on top and then cruised to the title, wrapping it up on the next-to-the-last weekend of the season, at North Carolina Speedway.

“During the summer, the adrenalin was pumping a lot harder because we were winning races,” Harvick said. “If we would have gone through the summer running 15th or 20th in the Busch car and the Cup car, we might have had to rethink what we were doing. But the world was turning in the right direction and everything was going pretty much flawlessly at that point, and that’s what kept us going.

“We got to a point that all of a sudden it felt like I was hit by a sledge hammer, and I didn’t want to do anything anymore. I didn’t want to leave my house. I didn’t want to go test. I didn’t want to do anything. I was just dragging. I didn’t want to tell Richard that.”

“He didn’t have to tell me that,” Childress said. “I only went on a couple of those deals with him. I did the Pikes Peak deal and that was probably one of the tougher ones on him. That day, when I walked out on the box, I almost gave out myself, much less running another 500 miles like he did. You’ve got to be in good shape to do that.”

Despite missing the first race of the season, Harvick easily won Winston Cup Rookie of the Year honors and wound up finishing ninth in the points standings – yet another testament to the magnitude of the season he compiled.

Now, after some down time during the off-season, Harvick will focus on making a run at the Winston Cup championship, something his RCR team knows all about. Earnhardt won six Winston Cup titles with Childress during his illustrious career.

“Kevin’s been a champion, he’s a champion now and he’s going to be a champion in the future,” Childress said. “There’s no reason for him to have to feel like he has to live up to what Dale did. He’s a completely different driver, but he’s got the same attitude about racing and the same drive. He can win a Winston Cup championship, and he’s capable of winning one in the near future.”

“We know that we’re just going to race the Winston Cup car next year and maybe a couple of Busch races, so the biggest thing is that we’re going to put all of our eggs in one basket,” Harvick said. “Just focusing on one car and getting used to that car will be the biggest key to being successful next year.”

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