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CORAL GABLES, Fla. – When asked if he will go to any length to win this year's Sprint Cup championship, Kevin Harvick is as definitive as a stopwatch.
"Absolutely," he said without hesitation. "These opportunities come along not every year, and I owe it to my team to do that. … I won't lose sleep over it. … It's just the nature of the beast of everything that comes from [Richard Childress Racing]. Ask for forgiveness later."
The nature of the RCR beast was born with Dale Earnhardt Sr., and to some degree, lives on through Harvick, who goes into Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway trailing Denny Hamlin by 46 points.
A decade ago, Harvick would have scoffed at the idea that he was channeling the late Earnhardt. When he was pegged as the driver to take over for Earnhardt following his death in the 2001 Daytona 500, Harvick didn't want to have anything to do with NASCAR's most popular driver.
Because Earnhardt drove a black-painted car, Harvick wanted to drive a white one. Because Earnhardt wore a white fire suit, Harvick wore a black one.
"I [didn't] want to hear anything about Dale Earnhardt," Harvick explained. "I [didn't] want to hear anything about his fans. I [didn't] care about his fans. I [didn't] care about what he did."
This was the attitude of a talented but brash 25-year-old thrust into the spotlight against his will. One day he's a no-name kid from Southern California driving in NASCAR's minor leagues. The next he's the heir apparent to the sport's biggest star, taking the reigns under circumstances that warranted front-page news everywhere from Sports Illustrated to Time magazine.
But rather than follow the roadmap that had delivered six championships to Earnhardt and RCR, Harvick insisted on doing things his way. Three weeks after Earnhardt died, Harvick was in victory lane for the first time. By the end of the season, he was ninth in the standings.
Doing things his way, he figured, was a pretty good idea.
Only the championships never came. He won just three races over the next four years, and after a five-win season in 2006, went to victory lane only once from 2007-2009.
Tension began to grow between him and team owner Richard Childress, escalating to a point where it seemed almost certain that Harvick would leave the organization as soon as his contract was up after the 2010 season.
But as Harvick feuded with Childress, he realized something: They both wanted the same thing. Really wanted the same thing.
Childress wasn't used to losing, either. He wasn't used to not winning championships, not going to victory lane on a regular basis. The fact that he hadn't won a title since 1994 grated on him, too. In this commonality, Childress and Harvick found a common cause, and Harvick realized embracing the "RCR way" was, in essence, embracing the desire to win no matter the cost.
The result has been the best season of Harvick's career – three wins, leading the standings for 20 weeks and, most importantly, he's one of the three men still standing in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
"I think those are a lot of things that Richard and I realized last year when we went through our spat," Harvick said. "We want the same goals. He wants to go back to victory lane. He wants to win a championship. We've achieved all those things this year except for a championship."
Now, as he eyes potentially the first title of his career, Harvick has discovered that he's not alone – that like it or not, a certain crowd desperate to cling to anything Earnhardt related, is still with him. And rather than shun the connection, Harvick has finally learned how to embrace it.
"Everything at RCR that has been built over the years – the foundation was built with Richard and Dale," Harvick said. "I've learned that it's not something that you really want to get away from."
This is the attitude of a 34-year-old, who through experience has come to realize that any connection to Earnhardt is a compliment. And somehow if Harvick does win the title on Sunday, be it straight up or with the help of a fender, there will be a lot of hands in the air waving not one finger but three – Earnhardt's number – and you can bet that Kevin Harvick will be one of them.