More than 18 years ago, Kevin Harvick was thrust into a career change he could not have anticipated a week earlier.
After Dale Earnhardt’s death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Harvick took over Earnhardt’s vaunted Richard Childress Racing ride the following week at Rockingham—albeit in a Chevrolet sporting the No. 29 in lieu of the trademark No. 3.
In his third start in the car, Harvick won at Atlanta, the first of 48 career victories to date. On Sunday at Talladega, Harvick will make his 677th start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The 2001 Daytona 500 was Earnhardt’s 676th race in NASCAR’s premier series.
“It should make a lot of us standing here feel old,” Harvick said on Friday at Talladega. “I think, as you look back and you don’t realize how long it actually has been and—you guys have heard me say this before—but in the beginning it was really hard to understand the magnitude of the circumstances the first couple years, just because you didn’t really understand much about what was going on as you got into the second year and really started to understand what happened the year before.
“It was already done. Sometimes you do things and then all of a sudden you get past those things and you haven’t really taken in all of the things that happen because you just didn’t understand them. Really, that first particular year we raced so much and the team protected me from so many things because we were on the road so much and didn’t have to really understand the magnitude of it, but there was no hiding from it over an offseason and the next year, as the expectations changed.
“But when you look at, like when I came in, we started racing 36 races and so it happened a little bit quicker than it would have with—I don’t know what the total number of years (Earnhardt raced) were—but I’m sure it’s more. It’s definitely a unique number and stat and makes you think back to a lot of things.”
Team owner Richard Childress will pace the field for Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), accompanied by Johnny Morris, founder of RCR sponsor Bass Pro Shops.
During the 50th anniversary season of RCR and the 50th anniversary season of Talladega Superspeedway, Childress will be behind the wheel No. 3 Chevrolet Earnhardt drove to the final victory of his career—and his 10th at Talladega—on Oct. 15, 2000.
Having moved from RCR to Stewart-Haas Racing, and having won the series championship in 2014, the first year of the elimination format, Harvick will compete in his 20th full season at NASCAR’s highest level next year. Of all the changes that have occurred in major league stock car racing since his rookie season, Harvick sees the advancements in safety as foremost.
“The rapid progression of the inside of the car—that’s the biggest that has changed, because I live in there on a week-to-week basis and have seen the progression of ‘You don’t have to really wear gloves if you don’t want to, you don’t have to wear a full-face helmet if you don’t want to,’ to today, where they’re bugging you all the time to go update your concussion protocol and going to do your physicals and all those things you used to just cowboy up and not do and think that was the right way to do it.
“The standard of the safety side of things, and it still progresses rapidly today because NASCAR pushes it. The soft walls. The helmets. The seats. I mean, a number of those things have changed, and I would say outside of the car is just the engineering, the amount of engineering that goes into these cars is still going to be surprising to somebody who comes from an industry that’s never seen a NASCAR race.”