Atlanta Motor Speedway will always hold a special place in Kevin Harvick's heart. In his third career NASCAR Cup Series start, the Bakersfield, Calif. driver delivered Richard Childress a shot in the arm just weeks after the loss of Dale Earnhardt. For Harvick the win was the start of a stellar career in the sport's top series.
Guest Column by Cathy Elliott
Leading into any given NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race weekend, you always hear a lot of talk about hometown heroes.
In Las Vegas, it focused on Kurt and Kyle Busch. In Richmond, Va., Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton find themselves even more popular than usual. At Auto Club Speedway, native Californians like Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon get a lot of attention; no big surprise there.
But you can’t help wondering if all the drivers necessarily consider their hometowns as their home tracks.
Kevin Harvick is a great example.
The NASCAR world was still reeling from the death of Dale Earnhardt when the 2001 race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway rolled around.
Every track on the series circuit that year would carry its own memories of Earnhardt, but perhaps none more so than AMS, where “The Intimidator” to this day holds the records for most wins, most top five finishes, and fastest race speed.
He loved the place, and it loved him right back. Just one year earlier, he and Bobby Labonte gave fans a finish that still ranks as one of the closest and most thrilling in NASCAR history.
But this year, the familiar black No. 3 was gone, replaced by its aesthetic opposite, a startlingly white No. 29 Chevy piloted by a largely unfamiliar driver, called up by owner Richard Childress to fill the most famous seat in racing -- 25-year-old Kevin Harvick.
Hacks don’t catch the eye of seasoned team owners like Mr. Childress, and Harvick had already proven he could drive. After working his way up through the go-kart, various NASCAR touring series and Camping World Truck Series ranks, Richard Childress Racing brought him on board in 2000 to compete full-time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where he won Rookie of the Year honors.
He was well on his way to securing a spot in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series, but no one suspected it would come quite so soon, or so tragically.
The 2001 race in Atlanta was only Harvick’s third career start in the Cup Series. Fans were conflicted. Earnhardt’s car was on the track, but some new guy was now driving it. On the flip side, most Earnhardt fans already liked his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., by association, and he, too, was competing at Atlanta.
But being jolted into choosing a new driver allegiance is a task much easier said than done. Where should their loyalties lie?
At the end of that day, no doubt remained. Whether Earnhardt fans eventually aligned themselves with Junior, Harvick or a different driver entirely, every person at the racetrack on March 11, 2001, along with the millions watching at home, simultaneously cheered and cried as the No. 29 took the checkered flag, giving Harvick his first Cup win and the NASCAR community some small sense of closure.
Nine years later, a very different Kevin Harvick -- who originally hails from California, by the way -- walked through the gates of Atlanta Motor Speedway.
He is a NASCAR success story now. He has won 11 Sprint Cup Series points paying races, including the 2007 Daytona 500. He was the 2001 and 2006 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, and his company, Kevin Harvick Inc., has won two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championships with driver Ron Hornaday Jr., in 2007 and 2009. He is motivated, sometimes controversial and extremely popular.
And headed into the March 7 race at Atlanta, he was the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader. Talk about coming full circle.
Sometimes, our memories and emotions can serve the same purpose as city limit signs, constituting the boundaries of home. NASCAR drivers are a superstitious group, and to a man, each one can tell you where he got his first win, and how that particular spot will always hold a special place in his heart or, to put it another way, will take up residence and live there forever.
Author Christian Morgenstern once said that home is not where you live, but where they understand you.
If that is true, then Kevin Harvick must have experienced a strong sense of homecoming at Atlanta Motor Speedway, never forgetting that for one emotional day nearly a decade ago, he, the track and everyone in it understood each other completely.