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.