Kevin Harvick’s farewell tour back where it started with dramatics

Credit: AJC file photo/Johnny Crawford

Credit: AJC file photo/Johnny Crawford

Harvick will race Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway

The words may still echo around Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“Somewhere up there, I think Dale is smiling.”

They came as part of the television broadcast of the Cracker Barrel 500 as Kevin Harvick narrowly edged out Jeff Gordon to win the NASCAR race on March 11, 2001, at AMS. The victory was the first in what has been a distinguished career for Harvick and came in his third start, three weeks after the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18. Harvick took over for Earnhardt in a renumbered No. 29 car for Richard Childress Racing.

The race and the Harvick victory have been described as a healing moment for the sport after the loss of a legend.

In January, the 47-year-old Harvick announced that the 2023 season would be his last after more than 20 years and 60 NASCAR Cup series wins behind the wheel. He returns to AMS for Sunday’s Ambetter Health 400, the first of his final two races in Atlanta. Near the end of his career, he’s back where it started.

“When you look back at it now, having the whole picture now and being able to put it in perspective, I think that moment was as big as any moment we’ve had in our sport,” Harvick said to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week. “For us to win in Dale’s car and give the Earnhardt fans something positive to cheer for was just a big turning point in the sport. It really wasn’t about me. … That moment really helped everything.”

Harvick won the race by 0.006 of a second. It was the fifth-closest finish (now tied for seventh) in NASCAR history. It remains the closest finish in AMS history.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Harvick said he remembers few specifics from that day 22 years ago. It’s really all a blur. He does remember the noise from the crowd after the race, the fans hanging on the backstretch fence and the feeling of crossing the finishing line, win or lose.

Harvick’s success has come with two teams, 23 wins with Richard Childress Racing and 37 with Stewart-Haas Racing. His 60 wins ranks 10th all-time, just one behind Kyle Busch. He won championships in the 2014 Cup series as well as the 2001 and 2006 Xfinity Series. Harvick became the first champion of the elimination-style playoff format, notching five wins and eight poles in his first season with SHR. He won the 2007 Daytona 500. He was Rookie of the Year in 2001 following his career-first win.

“Kevin Harvick’s legacy as one of the all-time great drivers is secure,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in a statement at the time of Harvick’s retirement announcement. “Beyond his success inside a race car, Kevin is a leader who truly cares about the health and the future of our sport – a passion that will continue long after his driving days are complete.”

Harvick won twice last year, with back-to-back victories at Michigan and Richmond near the end of the regular season. He failed to advance past the first round of playoff eliminations for the first time in his career.

This season, Harvick finished 12th at Daytona, fifth in California, ninth in Las Vegas and fifth in Phoenix. He ranks second in the Cup Series standings with 151 points, three points behind Alex Bowman.

“There are proper ways to celebrate it and still be competitive,” Harvick said of the rare opportunity for an athlete to announce his retirement ahead of one last season.

“The thing that sticks out to me is we have been competitive every week and had a chance to win a couple races and run at the front and lead laps and do the things that I want to do and that was to be competitive for my team. And I think that’s the most important part. Go out on your own terms in the last year and do what we’ve done the last 22 years on the Cup side, and that’s to be competitive. I think that’s the most respectful thing to the fans and the people in the sport is to not just cash it in, but go out there and try to win.”

Between now and the end of the season, Harvick will try to reach out and thank as many people as possible that he has encountered over his career. There will be hands to shake, pictures to take, dinners to be held and helmet and car paint schemes to make.

“We’ve tried to pay respect as much as we can each week to somebody or something, or situation or moment because, whatever it is, in the end you are trying to tell a story for the last 30 years,” Harvick said. “… You are trying to tell a story of my career and things that have happened, and in the end, behind the scenes there are a lot of things that happen.”

Brandon Hutchinson, the AMS executive vice president and general manager, said his track will honor Harvick during his final race here, the Quaker State 400 in July.

“It’s one of the most memorable race wins he’s had in his entire career – and he’s had quite the career,” Hutchinson said of Harvick’s start in Atlanta.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP