Kevin Harvick might just be the next Dale Earnhardt

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How's that for a catchy headline?

Thing is, it's got the heft of truth to it. For most of the last decade, NASCAR fans have wondered who would step up to the challenge of following in the late Intimidator's tire tracks. Turns out, it might have been the guy who took over for him in the first place.

It's become clear that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has neither the personality nor the driving skills to do so, and that's not a knock on Junior at all; it's just the way he was built. Kyle Busch comes the closest to driving like Senior, but his public persona is about 180 degrees from that of Dale. (Privately, he's every bit as conniving and calculating, but publicly, he's got that unfortunate crybaby rep.) Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson ... all have elements of Earnhardt's personality and/or talent, but nobody combines the whole package.

Well, nobody except Kevin Harvick.

Check this. Harvick has the talent to run at the front of the pack, as we've seen this year. He's got the kind of attitude and personality to sway the masses. (Witness the fights he's picked with the media and NASCAR, two easy targets to get fans on your side.) He's married to perhaps the most forthright NASCAR wife in the sport's history. And he's not afraid to race old-school style, as he demonstrated Sunday:

Asked afterward, he said that Busch had raced him like a "clown" all day, "so I parked him." That's a great line there, the perfect put-you-in-your-place tossed-off dismissal.

Busch, of course, was incensed, calling Harvick "two-faced" and repeatedly insisting that he wasn't racing for any purpose but to win the race for the 18 team. (Well, and maybe help out teammate Denny Hamlin.) But getting Kyle Busch mad might just make people like Harvick all the more.

Harvick, of course, took the wheel of Earnhardt's vehicles after Earnhard died in the 2001 Daytona 500, and famously won just weeks later in Atlanta. And speaking before Sunday's race, he noted that Earnhardt's old fans have expressed admiration for him ... and possibly even more. "You realize that those people are still out there and still love the sport and still love everything that happens at RCR and have kind of found that hole, I guess, that's been missing, and that's been the competitive nature of what used to be the 3 car in the 29 car. And it's very rewarding to know that those people are still out there."

Next year, Harvick will run under a Budweiser sponsorship, and Bud has already said it will be putting a significant chunk of its budget into advertising, not on-car sponsorship. That means you're about to see a whole lot more of Harvick.

Is Harvick up to being a 21st-century Man In Black? We'll find out soon enough. But the groundwork — talent, persona, marquee sponsor — is all there for NASCAR's next crossover star to break big. Don't say you weren't warned.

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