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Harvick wins for himself

When Kevin Harvick won his first NASCAR Winston Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March it was in the memory of Dale Earnhardt, whose Goodwrench Chevrolet he had taken over after the legend was killed at the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500

When Harvick won his second career Winston Cup race in Sunday's inaugural Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, however, this victory was for him.

"Today was special because it was our second win and it came after an emotional return to Daytona and it was a tough situation for all of us," said team owner Richard Childress. "Today has its touching moments."

Twenty-five-year-old Harvick has established himself as one of the best rookie drivers in NASCAR Winston Cup history, and his two wins leaves him just one win shy of the record of three rookie wins set by Tony Stewart in 1999.

Harvick may only be a rookie, but he drove like a veteran in Sunday's inaugural race at the 1.5-mile oval located outside of Chicago. In fact, he dominated the race like his predecessor Earnhardt used to. He led the race five times for 113 laps.

"I don't mind everything being in memory of Dale because everything we do this year is in memory of him," Harvick said. "Dale Earnhardt is the reason we are racing in both series and we want to do the best we can for him. That was our goal, to go out and win as many races as we could. Right now, he would be pretty proud of us running up front and paying attention.

"If somebody had told me I'd have two Winston Cup wins by now, I would have told them I thought they were crazy. Next weekend will be our one-year anniversary for winning our first Busch race. That's a credit to Kevin Hamlin and the organisation, teaching me how to race under control."

Considering that Harvick has won two races as a rookie, while he continues to compete on the full Busch Series schedule, imagine how good he will be when he becomes a veteran.

"When we hired him, I said Kevin Harvick is the real deal," Childress said. "Today, he backed it up. We had a super car at Bristol and in an unfortunate incident, we cut a tyre. We have had some really strong runs. If you see his performance today and yesterday, that answers a lot of questions. Watching his talent through the years, I saw a few things in him that I liked. I knew he had the ability. It was a gut feeling that you knew he would produce. He is very mature for his age and to be put in a difficult situation, he has been able to handle it unbelievable.

"I've been in this sport for over 30 years and I've seen the greats come along. I think he has everything it's going to take to be one of the greats, plus be on the stage at New York one day as the NASCAR Winston Cup champion."

Harvick said the biggest thing he has learned is to pace himself and not abuse the race car early in the race so it has something left at the end. He has made the best out of cars that may not be capable of winning, which has him in seventh place in the NASCAR Winston Cup standings, despite the fact he has one fewer start than any driver in the top 26.

The race Harvick didn't compete in was the Daytona 500. After all, Harvick wasn't scheduled to join the Winston Cup series full time until next season. That all changed in the last turn of the last lap when Earnhardt was killed. The next day, a broken-hearted Childress knew he had to move on and gave Harvick the ride.

Harvick has rapidly shown the maturity it takes to be a winner. He used the testing information from Jeff Green, who will drive full-time for RCR in 2002.

"All I know is we used everything that Jeff Green came here and tested with," said Harvick. "We made some adjustments to my driving style. I think they changed two springs and a sway bar. That's pretty good.

"The track still has a lot of grip, but after five laps, it was really consistent. It didn't have a lot of wear and was very consistent through the whole run. We ran the same speeds every lap. Between the track and Goodyear tyres, we didn't have any problems."

After a caution on 227, the leaders pitted for the final time with Mark Martin the first out of the pits and Harvick in sixth. The 25-year-old from Bakersfield, California didn't stay there long as he passed Kurt Busch for third on lap 238, Pressley for second one lap later and took the lead from Martin at the start/finish line on lap 242.

"When we were all jumbled up like that on the restart, that was the best opportunity to pass," Harvick said. "Once they got spread out, the guy in the lead got out there a ways. Jimmy Spencer was hard to pass, but once we got by him, we made up some time and then we got by Mark.

"What was really nerve-racking was with five laps to go. The biggest relief was seeing the smoke come out of Jerry Nadeau's car because he was the next best car on the race track."

When Childress hired Earnhardt in 1984 to begin a union that lasted until the driver was killed in February, he knew he had a special driver. He has the same feeling with Harvick.

"Each one has special moments and special times and it takes some time to think about it to answer these questions," Childress said. "I still remember walking to the press box in Talladega in 1984 when we won our first race with Dale.

"Today, we walked here but it wasn't as far. They are two great drivers."

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