DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kevin Harvick spent the past decade avoiding dealing with Dale Earnhardt’s death.
He was closed off to teammates. He was detached from fans. He was unwilling to broach the delicate subject with just about anyone.
With the anniversary of Earnhardt’s fatal crash looming at Daytona International Speedway, Harvick opened up to teammates during a Richard Childress Racing dinner earlier this month. With tears in his eyes and 10 years of emotion pouring from his heart, Harvick caught everyone by surprise.
And this much was clear: Harvick finally has embraced Earnhardt’s legacy.
“It’s hard to be in the shadow of somebody,” teammate Jeff Burton said. “There’s no way that Kevin Harvick steps into that car after the tragedy without being in his shadow. You know, that’s hard. I don’t want to speak for Kevin, but it takes a little while to separate yourself from that.”
It took years.
Harvick was 25 when Earnhardt died on Feb. 18, 2001, in a final-lap wreck at the Daytona 500. Harvick was a budding star in NASCAR’s second-tier series. He envisioned making the jump to the Sprint Cup Series, but never could have imagined it happening the way it did.
Crew chief Kevin Hamlin summoned Harvick to Richard Childress’ office in the middle of night and asked him to do the unthinkable -- replace Earnhardt.
Harvick was woefully unprepared.
“Instantly, it’s like everybody knows your name, everybody knows what you’re doing, so you start from the wrong end of the spectrum and you don’t have time,” Harvick said. “A lot of times when you come into something new you have time to learn. You have time to learn what you’re supposed to say, when you’re supposed to do things, how you’re supposed to do it.
“You start off with the biggest press conference that you’ll ever have in your whole career and you have more fans than you’ll ever have and you don’t know how to manage your time, you don’t know how to manage your money, you don’t know what to say, and all of a sudden you have all that stuff at once. So, instantly, I just put up my defense, and it was easier just not to talk about it.”
Instead, Harvick shut down. He figured that was the easiest way to cope with everything going on around him -- questions about Earnhardt’s death and tributes at every track.
“Instantly, you had everything that you wanted, but you didn’t have to do anything for it,” Harvick said. “It just didn’t all make sense to me.”
Racing in the same Chevrolet but with a different colored paint scheme with No. 29 on the side, Harvick got behind the wheel days after Earnhardt’s death and finished 14th at Rockingham. Harvick vividly remembers details of that day, from the bright lights of a news conference to a private conversation with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“When he drove that car at Rockingham, we told him it was going to be a life-changing moment, and it has been,” Childress said.
Two weeks later, everything became a blur.
Harvick won over the legion of Earnhardt fans with a victory at Atlanta in his third race. He nipped Jeff Gordon at the finish line by six one-thousandths of a second, one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history, then dropped a reverse victory lap with three fingers out the window and everyone on their feet.
“I don’t remember a thing from the day,” Harvick said. “With the different emotions of everything we went through during that time period, I can go back and watch the video, but I couldn’t tell you one thing that stuck out from that particular day because there were so many things happening.
“I know it should be something I remember for the rest of my life, but there were so many different emotions and so many things happening, and to throw the win on top of that, you didn’t know whether to be happy or sad. You want to be happy, but are you supposed to?”
He won again that season but found mixed results in the years that followed. He did, however, develop his own brash style and reputation. He became known as the Instigator -- a derisive play on Earnhardt’s famed nickname the Intimidator -- and might have turned off some Earnhardt loyalists.
And while Harvick didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Childress on the direction the team, any disagreements seemed to bring them closer together.
They got really tight in 2010 as Harvick contended for the title. He finished third in points, remaining in a tight race until the finale in Homestead. His success from last season, along with the 10 years that have passed, have helped him come to terms with replacing Earnhardt and accepting his leadership role at RCR.
His speech proved that to everyone else.
“That was different. But he was serious. I can promise you that,” teammate Clint Bowyer said. “It’s been a big part of his life. Obviously, his career is because of (Earnhardt’s death). That started his career. You know, he owes a lot to Dale. I know that that’s important to him. It was just an emotional moment but definitely uncharacteristic.”
Still, Harvick knows he never will escape Earnhardt’s shadow. And he’s fine with it -- finally.
“That legacy was always going to be with the car and the comparisons that came with it,” Harvick said. “It will always be a part of that car. It’s not maddening. It’s a good thing, so you try to embrace that and continue that legacy as strong as possible moving forward.”