But Harvick's connection to Earnhardt runs deeper than the car. No current driver in NASCAR is as similar to Earnhardt in driving style (read: possessing a propensity to shove cars out of the way) or ability to glibly cut down an opponent with a few caustic words as Harvick is. "I let people draw their own conclusions about my similarities to Dale Sr.," Harvick says, smiling mischievously, as he sits in a Mexican restaurant in Charlotte. "I just try to be myself. But I will tell you this: I will not back down to anyone."
Last season Harvick scored more points than any other driver over the course of the 36-race season, but after the 10-race Chase he wound up third in the final standings behind Cup winner Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. Harvick dominated the restrictor-plate races—just as Earnhardt used to—by winning two of the four plate events, including the July race at Daytona. "I always like my chances at Daytona," Harvick says. "And for this chapter to close correctly, either myself or Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to win this 500."
THE SON: DALE EARNHARDT JR.
It was August 2000 and Dale Earnhardt Jr., then 25 and seemingly without a care in the world, was behind the wheel of his 1971 cherry-red Corvette convertible, rolling down Highway 136 outside of Mooresville, N.C. He had just chatted with his father at the DEI headquarters, and as he cruised through the Carolina countryside, he shared a confession with his passenger. "The key to all the success I've had is my dad," said Little E, who was a rookie in the Cup series and a two-time Busch Series champion. "He taught me how to drive, how to live with integrity and how to be a man."
Six months after Junior uttered those words, his dad was gone. "After that happened I never wanted to see another racetrack or another race car again," Earnhardt says. "But after a week I got to thinking, 'What am I going to do?' My dad gave me this opportunity."
In the last few weeks Earnhardt has been asked by several print reporters to discuss the anniversary, but he's turned them down, politely sending a message through his p.r. people that it would be too hard. A decade has passed, but the pain has scarcely dulled. "We don't spend a lot of time talking about Dad or sharing stories about him," says Kelley Earnhardt, Dale's sister. "We don't get into our emotions much. That's just who we are."
Can you blame Earnhardt, though, for not wanting to dig deep on the subject? Today the shadow of the father—and the popularity of that name—still looms large over the son. Consider: There are scores of drivers, owners and even NASCAR officials who will tell you that the fastest way for NASCAR to reverse its tumbling TV ratings and cure its attendance woes would be for Earnhardt, voted the most popular driver in NASCAR the last eight years straight, to win races and consistently run in the front of the field. Wouldn't that keep you up at night, knowing that many people think—fairly or not—that the fortunes of an entire sport depend on your performance, as if you were some sort of savior in a firesuit? "I may have this name, but I never thought of myself being like my father," Earnhardt told SI last year. "He was just so big, man, larger than life. It's a damn tough act to follow, if you know what I mean."
Yes, it has been. Though he has 18 career wins in the Cup series, which ties him for ninth most among active drivers, Earnhardt has reached Victory Lane just once in his last 170 starts, a funk that stretches back to May 2006. He admits he has heard the "You're not your father" barbs from fans, and these remarks cut deep into the sensitive, often shy 36-year-old. "Dale Jr. has never gotten a fair shake from the start because, guess what, he's not his father," says Harvick. "He was always supposed to have been someone else. The pressure he's under is unreal."
Rick Hendrick feels that pressure. Ever since Hendrick signed Earnhardt to drive for Hendrick Motorsports in 2007, the owner has repeatedly said his No. 1 priority is to make Junior into a championship contender. Yet even though Hendrick has won the last five Cup championships with driver Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt has floundered, failing to finish in the top 20 in points the last two years. In his boldest move to date with Earnhardt, Hendrick shook up his organization this off-season in the hope of revitalizing Junior's career. Beginning at Daytona, Earnhardt's new crew chief will be Steve Letarte, who has been atop Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon's pit box for the last five seasons. Perhaps more significant, Earnhardt's team will now be housed under the same roof as Johnson's number 48 crew, which means that each weekend Earnhardt and Letarte will know precisely the setup and the strategy of the most dominant race team in NASCAR history.
"Sometimes it's difficult to get Dale to talk over the radio when things aren't going well during a race," says Lance McGrew, who was Earnhardt's crew chief last year and this season will be teamed with Mark Martin. "He can lose focus when he has things on his mind or when he gets frustrated. But I think this change will help him. Steve can talk his way through any problem, and their communication is going to be key. But man, that's a lot of pressure they're going to deal with. Really, it's unfair. Junior can't escape the comparisons to his dad. It's with him all the time."