Brant James
Tuesday January 25th, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Sitting on a cooler outside his hauler at Daytona International Speedway, Kevin Harvick was a placid figure amid bustling activity, internally and externally. Adorned in a new red-and-black Budweiser fire suit, he was embarking on his 11th season at NASCAR's highest level, now as the pitch man for one of the sport's most iconic sponsors, and yet another tie to the Earnhardt legacy that once made him so ill at ease.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had represented the brewing giant for eight years. Earnhardt Jr. was the son of late legend Dale Earnhardt Sr., whose death occurred 10 years ago on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Harvick, then a 25-year-old beginning his second season in the Nationwide Series, was thrust by owner Richard Childress into one of the most pressurized situations imaginable as Earnhardt's replacement, albeit in a car rebranded as the No. 29 Chevrolet.

Both Earnhardt Jr. and Harvick were cast as new champions of a legacy, with similar issues to face and sometimes similar results. Earnhardt Jr. became a title contender, but his success waned in 2007 to the point where he left the team his father built for him and his sister, Kelley. Harvick pressed on with Richard Childress, with whom Earnhardt won six of his seven championships, and flirted with title-contention a few seasons.

"You're planning on racing for a championship in the Nationwide Series and then coming out and running a few Cup races, just signed a new sponsor for Cup the year after that, and then it all changed," Harvick remembered. "Instantly, it's like everybody knows your name, everybody knows what you're doing, so you start from the wrong end of the spectrum and you don't have time ... 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.

"I think as we went into that situation you start off with the biggest press conference that 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, and all of a sudden you have all that stuff at once. So instantly I just put up my defense and it was easier just not to talk about it. So I was 25 and didn't really know exactly what direction that life was going to go, and instantly you had everything that you wanted but you didn't have to do anything for it. So it just didn't all make sense to me."

Ten years later, it does.

Earnhardt Jr. is still trying to rekindle his career at Hendrick Motorsports, but Harvick, is coming off a year in which he led the points for much of the regular season, and finished third in the standings, 41 points behind five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. And in the process he's built his personal race team, Kevin Harvick Inc., into a weekly contender in the Truck Series and a possible title-contender with Elliott Sadler in the Nationwide Series. All this while Dale Earnhardt Inc., faded and merged with Chip Ganassi's race team.

In a sport drunk on nostalgia, Harvick, the 2007 Daytona 500-winner, enters this season as a legitimate contender for a first Sprint Cup title, driving a black race car, 10 years since replacing one of the sport's most popular drivers ever. A first Nationwide owners' championship for KHI is also a real possibility. Both endeavors are intertwined.

"I was very uncomfortable with [replacing Earnhardt] in the beginning, didn't like it, didn't want to be a part of it, and you know, as the last three or four years have come, I've learned to become more comfortable," Harvick said. "And I think the biggest reason is we've been able to accomplish a lot of things on our own."

We spoke with Harvick about an eventful decade, and what lies ahead. How do you process such an eventful 10 years?

Kevin Harvick: It definitely started off a lot of things 10 years ago, KHI, my Cup career, and almost my 12th year at RCR. There's been a lot of great things along the way. Won a lot of cool races and experienced a lot of cool things. On the company side of it, every year has been a growth, from year one to now, every year, we've grown in some way. I enjoy that part of it. I enjoy being around the people, the challenge of putting all that stuff together and trying to make that work. What was the state of KHI 10 years ago?

KH: My dad and I had always run our own race teams, to the very end, until I went away running for Wayne and Connie Spears. We never were as successful as we should have been in the Truck Series so that always was in the back of my mind, to go and close that void there, and naturally it evolved from there. That was always in my mind, wanting to close that gap on not winning a Truck race. Driving and owning race cars seems counterproductive in many ways, but has it been beneficial at times?

KH: Usually there's something going good, whether it's a Truck race or a Nationwide race or a Cup race or something in between. That's the good thing about having a lot of things going on: Usually you can find a positive in something that is happening. I enjoy it all. Obviously, when it's down or something good isn't happening, it's not near as much fun, but it's still a challenge to put it all together. What's the next evolution of KHI?

KH: Everything we've done has been a natural progression. It's just kind of happened. We'd never have gotten involved in the Nationwide Series if not for [Tony] Stewart wanting to come race some Nationwide races on his own. That would never have evolved if he didn't want to do that. We really were content -- we're content now, though not saying one day that [Cup] couldn't happen, but like with everything else, it would have to be 100 percent the right situation that wouldn't interfere with my Cup driving duties on Sunday at RCR. You seem to still indulge in pointed comments as a driver while maintaining a very strong ability to attract and keep sponsors at RCR and KHI. How do you balance that?

KH: The two things you learn how to manage over time are, your time and what the balance is as far as what you spend with each part of your life, and the second is, you can still be yourself and say the things you want to, but you have to pick and choose the moments that could be disastrous. You have to think about what's going on. It's taken a while to learn that part of it but nowadays sponsors are more into wanting to see the natural side of who you are and it's not near as uptight as it was when I first started.

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