If there's one thing Kevin Harvick is good at, it's multitasking. Even after he received a go-kart from his dad as a kindergarten graduation present, he found time to play baseball, basketball, football and soccer. When he got to North High in Bakersfield, Calif., and started racing stock cars, he found time to wrestle and qualified for the state tournament.
These days, when Harvick, 25, is not driving Dale Earnhardt's former car on NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit, he can be found tooling around in the car that he drives in the Busch series—one of NASCAR's minor league circuits—while laying the foundation for a career as an owner. About the only thing Harvick has had to put aside, at least for now, is his aspiration to be an architect. "I had to decide if I wanted to race full time or be an architect," he says. "I decided I could always go back to school."
Once he committed himself, it didn't take Harvick long to interest car owner Richard Childress, who watched him race several times and hired him in 1999. Childress wanted Harvick to drive a Busch Series car in 2000 and eventually take over Earnhardt's Winston Cup ride. Shortly after signing with Childress, Harvick and his new crew chief, Todd Berrier, took a Busch car to Rockingham, N.C., and Darlington, S.C., for testing. At both tracks the car blew a right front tire, a potentially catastrophic occurrence. In each case Harvick radioed Berrier and brought the car under control without hitting anything. Berrier was amazed that such a young driver could be so calm under the circumstances. "After our first time at the track together, we knew the sky was the limit," Berrier says.
In 2000 Harvick won three of the 31 Busch Series races he started and was named Rookie of the Year, which prompted Childress to let him run a handful of Winston Cup races in '01 before he was to become Earnhardt's full-time teammate in '02. The prospect of working with Earnhardt is what compelled Harvick to buy himself out of a contract with Craftsman Truck Series owner Jim Herrick and sign with Childress. Most of what Harvick learned from Earnhardt, who died in a crash at Daytona International Speedway in February, he learned by observation. "I didn't have much of a relationship with Dale," says Harvick. "I had been with Childress for just over a year, and Dale and I didn't cross paths that often. When he did say something to me, it was usually constructive criticism."
Earnhardt couldn't hide his admiration for the young driver, though. "Dale approved 100 percent of Kevin after watching him run a couple of Busch races," says Childress. Harvick's ascent was accelerated after Earnhardt's death. Childress, who had considered not racing the car again, instead repainted the famed black number 3 car white and changed the number to 29. However, people would still know it was Earnhardt's car, and that would invite scrutiny. Only one replacement was considered: Harvick.
Being a Winston Cup rookie thrust into a demanding 36-race schedule is hard enough without having to fill the shoes of a legend, but Harvick's situation was even more difficult because he refused to abandon his Busch team. "The [Busch team] guys are competing for a championship," says Harvick. "I owed that to them."
The two series run at the same tracks on the same weekends early in the season, but in the summer they diverge, making helicopter rides and cross-country plane trips the norm for Harvick. During one stretch he ran 12 races in nine states in six weeks. After starting last in the Busch race at Pikes Peak on July 28, he finished third, without having run a practice lap in the car. The next day he went to Pocono, Pa., and finished 20th in the Winston Cup race. Harvick leads the Busch Series by 236 points and is 11th in the Winston Cup standings despite not having run in the Daytona 500.
Driving in both series has been grueling, but the added seat time has been invaluable for gaining experience. One sign of Harvick's maturity is his ability to strike the right balance between being properly reverential to Earnhardt and forging his own identity. "I knew he would do well," says Childress, "but he amazes me every week."
Harvick has spent whatever spare time he can find preparing a truck to compete in yet another racing series. In addition to the Busch and Winston Cup events at Richmond the first weekend of September, Harvick plans to run the Craftsman Truck Series race. He hopes the project carries over into next year with Rick Carelli driving and Harvick owning. "He wants to race in the truck series," says Berrier, "because people say he's doing too much and he wants to prove them wrong."