Richard Childresspaced in the darkness on Sunday night, anxiously moving across the roof of thefour-story building that houses luxury boxes behind Victory Lane at DaytonaInternational Speedway. Two laps remained in the 49th Daytona 500, and all therace cars were parked along the backstretch a half mile away because the redflag had been thrown after another in a series of late-race crashes. NowChildress, the owner of Richard Childress Racing, gazed through the chillyFlorida night at his number 29 Chevy driven by Kevin Harvick--the man hehandpicked six years ago to replace his close friend, the late Dale EarnhardtSr. "You can still win this thing," Childress said emphatically intothe radio microphone to Harvick, who was in sixth place at the time. "Pullthose belts tight!"
During the 12minutes it took the cleanup crew to sweep the wreckage from the track, all ofChildress's Daytona memories--good and bad--ran through his mind. He recalled1998, the year he sat atop the black number 3 pit box and watched Earnhardt winthe Great American Race for the first time in 20 tries, prompting the Big E toscream, "I just won the Daytona Fi-i-i-i-ive Hun-n-n-n-dred!" as hecrossed the finish line. And Childress thought about 2001, six years ago to theday, when Earnhardt died in a crash on the last turn of the last lap of therace, a tragedy from which Childress says he still hasn't fully recovered.Since that accident an RCR Chevy hadn't finished higher than fourth in NASCAR'ssignature race, but now Harvick was poised to do something that was positivelyEarnhardtesque.
When the greenflag waved for the restart, the 190,000 fans roared as the leader, 48-year-oldMark Martin, a crowd favorite who had never won the 500 in 22 previous tries,blasted down the frontstretch in his number 01 Army Chevy. Martin expertlyblocked Kyle Busch for one lap, holding the lead as the white flag flew,signaling one lap to go. When the field swept down the backstretch at 190 mph,the 30-year-old Harvick, running seventh, slammed squarely into the rear ofMike Wallace. This bump-draft move rocketed Wallace and Harvick forward.Harvick then bolted to the high line, passing Wallace and charging into Turn 3.Matt Kenseth fell in behind Harvick, giving him desperately needed draftinghelp, which pushed Harvick even with Martin as the two flew side by sidethrough the final turn.
Just then, allhell broke loose behind them. Kyle Busch spun out in a swirl of smoke andbounced off a half dozen cars. Clint Bowyer's Chevy flipped, slid down thetrack on its roof and burst into flames. But Harvick kept his right foot mashedon the gas pedal, and about 200 yards before the finish line he inched ahead ofMartin. An eyeblink later the checkered flag flew: Harvick beat Martin by .020seconds--the closest finish in race history. Harvick was so excited that hepunched his rearview mirror with his right fist, knocking it off its mount.
"I was goingto go for it," said Harvick, between hugs from friends in Victory Lane."I put my foot down and let it all hang out."
"Kevinreminds me so much of Dale," said Childress, clad in his familiar whitebutton-down shirt and black leather jacket. "This starts our season off injust the right way. We're definitely title contenders this year."
Indeed, Harvick'sdramatic win is another landmark in the rebirth of Richard Childress Racing,which last won a Cup championship in 1994--the last of six that Childresscelebrated with Earnhardt. No RCR drivers qualified for the Chase for theNextel Cup in 2004 or '05, but last year Harvick and teammate Jeff Burtonsurged midway through the season and advanced to NASCAR's playoff series.Childress points to three moves he made over the last four years that arefinally paying dividends: In 2003 he sold a portion of his team to ChartwellInvestments (a private equity firm in New York City), which significantlyincreased his budget; in '04 he added new personnel to his engine department,and that unit has produced more horsepower; and also that year he hired Burton,a thoughtful veteran who has helped cultivate Harvick's talent.
During his firstfive years in the Cup series, beginning in 2001, Harvick, a native ofBakersfield, Calif., was notoriously temperamental. He was suspended for onerace in '02 after he intentionally wrecked another driver in the CraftsmanTruck Series. But soon after Burton arrived from Roush Racing in August 2004,he used his influence to help turn Harvick into a more even-keeled competitor."Jeff has been through a lot, and he's someone I can talk to and bouncethings off," says Harvick. "He's been a huge part of RCR'ssuccess."
Last seasonHarvick had a career-high five victories and finished fourth in Cup pointswhile also winning the Busch Series title. Then last Saturday, on the eve ofthe 500, he won the season-opening Busch race, the Orbitz 300 at Daytona. Adominant performance, indeed, by Harvick in a week that will be remembered atDaytona not only for his rise to the elite level but also for the fall fromgrace of a former 500 winner.
Four days beforethe 500, Michael Waltrip's number 55 Toyota was parked in the Daytona garage,the hood up and the inside stripped like a BMW abandoned in the Bronx. Theengine, transmission, shocks and fuel tank had all been removed, and a dozenNASCAR officials in white shirts spent several hours inspecting every part.Three days earlier, during qualifying, one of the inspectors had discovered abluish, jellylike substance inside the intake manifold. The illegal substancewas intended to boost horsepower. Upon completion of this more thoroughinspection, NASCAR docked Michael Waltrip Racing 100 driver points; kickedWaltrip's crew chief, David Hyder, and his competition director, Bobby Kennedy,out of the track and suspended them indefinitely; and fined Hyder an unheard-of$100,000.
Waltrip's teamwasn't the only one caught crossing the line between ingenuity and cheating inthe days before the 500. The crew chiefs for Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, ScottRiggs and Elliott Sadler also were suspended for rules violations found aftertheir qualifying runs. Afraid that cheating would do to stock car racing whatsteroids did to baseball, NASCAR has employed 150 inspectors--three times thenumber that worked the Cup series five years ago--to enforce the rules. In theseason's first week NASCAR assessed more suspensions (six) and fines ($250,000total) than in any other seven-day stretch in the organization's history.
The man in themost trouble is clearly Waltrip. A two-time Daytona 500 winner and a 20-yearCup veteran, he owns three of the seven new Toyota teams and has become thepublic face of the first foreign manufacturer in the Cup series. Toyotaexecutives were banking on the media-savvy Waltrip--a native of Owensboro, Ky.,who's as Southern-fried as Colonel Sanders--to help Toyota win over U.S. fans.Instead Waltrip's organization produced a p.r. nightmare for the Japanesecarmaker, and within 12 hours after the sanctions were announced by NASCAR,those executives were discussing what to do next. For now, Toyota is stickingwith Waltrip, who claims that a yet-to-be-identified rogue crew member put theillegal substance in the fuel without his knowledge. But this week, Toyotasays, it will notify each of its teams to make clear that another cheatingincident could lead to Toyota's yanking its manufacturing support.
"This wasgoing to be one of the great weeks in our motor sports history," says JimAust, the president of Toyota Racing Development. "Obviously, this wasn'tthe way we wanted to start. But we aim to be here a long, long time."
So does Harvick.He and Childress first met in 1999, when Harvick was racing in the CraftsmanTruck Series. Childress was impressed with Harvick's ability to weave throughtraffic from the back of the field and hired him that August to drive for hisBusch team. Eighteen months later, following Earnhardt's death, Childress madethe difficult decision to repaint Big E's black car, change the number from 3to 29 and hand the wheel to Harvick.
On Sunday nightChildress's faith in his driver was rewarded. Standing high above the speedway,the 61-year-old owner raised his arms as Harvick crossed the finish line. Inhis headset Childress heard Harvick yell seven words--seven words that tookChildress's breath away, seven words that transported him back to 1998: "Ijust won the Daytona Fi-i-i-i-ive Hun-n-n-n-dred!"
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With the field disintegrating behind them, Martin and Harvick raced side byside out of Turn 4 before Harvick (29) inched ahead just before the finish (atright). In winning the 500 by two hundredths of a second, the closest margin inthe race's history, Harvick (inset) hoisted his second first-place trophy intwo days.
One of the victims of the last-lap pileup, Bowyer skidded to an unorthodox18th-place finish but was unhurt.