paced in the darkness on Sunday night, anxiously moving across the roof of the
four-story building that houses luxury boxes behind Victory Lane at Daytona
International Speedway. Two laps remained in the 49th Daytona 500, and all the
race cars were parked along the backstretch a half mile away because the red
flag had been thrown after another in a series of late-race crashes. Now
Childress, the owner of Richard Childress Racing, gazed through the chilly
Florida night at his number 29 Chevy driven by Kevin Harvick--the man he
handpicked six years ago to replace his close friend, the late Dale Earnhardt
Sr. "You can still win this thing," Childress said emphatically into
the radio microphone to Harvick, who was in sixth place at the time. "Pull
those belts tight!"
During the 12
minutes it took the cleanup crew to sweep the wreckage from the track, all of
Childress's Daytona memories--good and bad--ran through his mind. He recalled
1998, the year he sat atop the black number 3 pit box and watched Earnhardt win
the Great American Race for the first time in 20 tries, prompting the Big E to
scream, "I just won the Daytona Fi-i-i-i-ive Hun-n-n-n-dred!" as he
crossed the finish line. And Childress thought about 2001, six years ago to the
day, when Earnhardt died in a crash on the last turn of the last lap of the
race, a tragedy from which Childress says he still hasn't fully recovered.
Since that accident an RCR Chevy hadn't finished higher than fourth in NASCAR's
signature race, but now Harvick was poised to do something that was positively
When the green
flag waved for the restart, the 190,000 fans roared as the leader, 48-year-old
Mark Martin, a crowd favorite who had never won the 500 in 22 previous tries,
blasted down the frontstretch in his number 01 Army Chevy. Martin expertly
blocked Kyle Busch for one lap, holding the lead as the white flag flew,
signaling one lap to go. When the field swept down the backstretch at 190 mph,
the 30-year-old Harvick, running seventh, slammed squarely into the rear of
Mike Wallace. This bump-draft move rocketed Wallace and Harvick forward.
Harvick then bolted to the high line, passing Wallace and charging into Turn 3.
Matt Kenseth fell in behind Harvick, giving him desperately needed drafting
help, which pushed Harvick even with Martin as the two flew side by side
through the final turn.
Just then, all
hell broke loose behind them. Kyle Busch spun out in a swirl of smoke and
bounced off a half dozen cars. Clint Bowyer's Chevy flipped, slid down the
track on its roof and burst into flames. But Harvick kept his right foot mashed
on the gas pedal, and about 200 yards before the finish line he inched ahead of
Martin. An eyeblink later the checkered flag flew: Harvick beat Martin by .020
seconds--the closest finish in race history. Harvick was so excited that he
punched his rearview mirror with his right fist, knocking it off its mount.
"I was going
to go for it," said Harvick, between hugs from friends in Victory Lane.
"I put my foot down and let it all hang out."
reminds me so much of Dale," said Childress, clad in his familiar white
button-down shirt and black leather jacket. "This starts our season off in
just the right way. We're definitely title contenders this year."
dramatic win is another landmark in the rebirth of Richard Childress Racing,
which last won a Cup championship in 1994--the last of six that Childress
celebrated with Earnhardt. No RCR drivers qualified for the Chase for the
Nextel Cup in 2004 or '05, but last year Harvick and teammate Jeff Burton
surged midway through the season and advanced to NASCAR's playoff series.
Childress points to three moves he made over the last four years that are
finally paying dividends: In 2003 he sold a portion of his team to Chartwell
Investments (a private equity firm in New York City), which significantly
increased his budget; in '04 he added new personnel to his engine department,
and that unit has produced more horsepower; and also that year he hired Burton,
a thoughtful veteran who has helped cultivate Harvick's talent.
During his first
five years in the Cup series, beginning in 2001, Harvick, a native of
Bakersfield, Calif., was notoriously temperamental. He was suspended for one
race in '02 after he intentionally wrecked another driver in the Craftsman
Truck Series. But soon after Burton arrived from Roush Racing in August 2004,
he used his influence to help turn Harvick into a more even-keeled competitor.
"Jeff has been through a lot, and he's someone I can talk to and bounce
things off," says Harvick. "He's been a huge part of RCR's
Harvick had a career-high five victories and finished fourth in Cup points
while also winning the Busch Series title. Then last Saturday, on the eve of
the 500, he won the season-opening Busch race, the Orbitz 300 at Daytona. A
dominant performance, indeed, by Harvick in a week that will be remembered at
Daytona not only for his rise to the elite level but also for the fall from
grace of a former 500 winner.
Four days before
the 500, Michael Waltrip's number 55 Toyota was parked in the Daytona garage,
the hood up and the inside stripped like a BMW abandoned in the Bronx. The
engine, transmission, shocks and fuel tank had all been removed, and a dozen
NASCAR officials in white shirts spent several hours inspecting every part.
Three days earlier, during qualifying, one of the inspectors had discovered a
bluish, jellylike substance inside the intake manifold. The illegal substance
was intended to boost horsepower. Upon completion of this more thorough
inspection, NASCAR docked Michael Waltrip Racing 100 driver points; kicked
Waltrip's crew chief, David Hyder, and his competition director, Bobby Kennedy,
out of the track and suspended them indefinitely; and fined Hyder an unheard-of