The assignment for the sixth grade class in Bakersfield, California, was to write about career goals.
Even then, Kevin Harvick stood out.
The son of a firefighter, Harvick didn’t forecast riding siren-screaming trucks to emergencies. Instead, he detailed how he would race wheel-screeching cars and reach the NASCAR Winston Cup Series by age 30.
Harvick made it when he was 25 years old.
While his path seemed simple, it has been anything but for the future NASCAR Hall of Famer, who announced Thursday that this season — his 23rd in Cup — will be his final year.
The 47-year-old has spent nearly half his life racing in NASCAR’s premier series, winning a championship and building a legacy, but nothing compares to his first Cup season.
Scheduled to compete in select Cup races in 2001 while running a full Busch Series schedule for car owner Richard Childress, those plans changed when Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500.
Childress asked Harvick to drive for Earnhardt’s team.
“This will undoubtedly be the hardest thing that ever happens in my life,” Harvick said before his Cup debut at North Carolina Speedway, the week after Earnhardt’s crash.
That race took place amid what was to be one of the happiest moments of Harvick’s life.
Harvick and wife DeLana were to be married in Las Vegas two days after the rain-delayed race. They thought about postponing it, but Childress told them not to do so. He told them that if ever there was a time for happiness, it was then.
Eleven days later, Harvick, in a white No. 29 car, nipped Jeff Gordon’s brightly colored car by six-thousandths of a second to win at Atlanta in what remains the fifth-closest Cup finish since electronic scoring debuted in 1993.
Harvick appeared on the way to immediate stardom, but his path veered. While many wanted him to be an Earnhardt clone, Harvick sought his own identity. Conflict ensued.
Harvick’s feistiness led to confrontations with drivers. An altercation with Chad Little in the Darlington garage after a Busch Series race in 2001 led to a $10,000 fine and probation.
After being wrecked by Greg Biffle in a Busch race at Bristol in 2002, Harvick leapt onto the trunk of Biffle’s car after the race and then lunged at Biffle.
Two races later, NASCAR parked Harvick for the Martinsville Cup race a day after he wrecked Coy Gibbs in the Truck race in retaliation for an earlier incident. Ordered to report to the NASCAR hauler after the on-track incident, Harvick stopped his truck two feet from the rear of the hauler and left his truck there.
In 2003 at Richmond, contact from Ricky Rudd sent Harvick into the wall. After the race, Harvick parked his wrecked car next to Rudd’s on pit road. Harvick yelled at Rudd before walking across the hood of Rudd’s car. Asked what Harvick said to him, Rudd said he didn’t hear because “(Harvick’s) got that little yap-yap mouth.”
Harvick has been at the center of other memorable quotes. After the fortunate timing of a caution helped Jimmie Johnson win at Auto Club Speedway in 2010, Harvick said of Johnson’s team: “They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their ass.”
Later that season, Joey Logano, upset after contact from Harvick spun him late in a race at Pocono, told reporters: “It’s probably not his fault. His wife wears the fire suit in the family.”
Other times, Harvick has shined. He has often done things differently. He signed to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing a year before his contract with Richard Childress Racing ended after the 2013 season. Despite predictions that Harvick would falter in a lame-duck season, he won four races and finished third in points, tying for his best points result to that point.
He won the Cup title the following season at SHR. Partnered with crew chief Rodney Childers, they formed a team that got better with age. Twenty-nine of Harvick’s 60 Cup victories have come after he turned 40 — a time when driver careers often slow instead of accelerate.
He still has the fire, as was evident in his confrontation on pit road with Chase Elliott at Bristol during the 2021 playoffs. Elliott was upset with Harvick for contact that cut Elliott’s tire late. Harvick was upset with Elliott impeding him in the final laps, costing Harvick the win. The feud continued for a couple of weeks, leading to Harvick punting Elliott at the Charlotte Roval.
Harvick also has shown signs of growth. He’s become more focused on the direction of the sport. He’s served as a mentor for young drivers. As driver angst grew about injuries last year, Harvick spoke out about safety concerns last fall.
Now, he prepares for his final season as a driver. It’s a long way back from when he would work with his dad under a race car at age 3 and help “fix” it. That meant sticking spark plugs into crevices only to see those spark plugs bounce out from underneath the car once it was on track.
Then again, Harvick didn’t need those spark plugs. He provides the spark.
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Long: Kevin Harvick has provided a spark for NASCAR through the years originally appeared on NBCSports.com