Thomas Bowles · Sunday November 6, 2005
Looking around the NASCAR garage area on any given weekend, you can see thousands of fans milling about, decked out in full race weekend attire. For the most part, what they wear is predictable. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. caps and Jeff Gordon T-shirts pepper the crowd at most any race track on the circuit. At places like Texas, local heroes like Terry & Bobby Labonte could fill their own small race track with the amount of fans that show up to cheer them on Sunday.
But for those select few drivers that have such a large following, there are those that live on the other end of the spectrum. You’re about as likely to find a Kurt Busch fan, for example, as finding a needle in a haystack. And then there’s the case of Kevin Harvick. The man is far more likely to get booed as cheered, and the amounts of Harvick paraphenalia sold on a yearly basis pale in comparison to the souvenir sales of a Tony Stewart or a Carl Edwards, despite being the man who replaced Dale Earnhardt. But Harvick’s aggressive personality on the track doesn’t win them many friends, and his “un-Earnhardt” off-track persona has yet to win back the hearts of fans looking for reasons to hate him.
Simply put, Harvick doesn’t have a squeeky clean image with NASCAR fans…far from it. But this weekend, he may have took a step towards cleaning up the mess he’s created in the minds of many people through the years.
Harvick’s 2005 season, at one point full of promise, hasn’t come close to delivering the results he’s hoped for. The winner of the Spring Bristol race in Nextel Cup, RCR’s top driver found himself within reach of making the Chase for the Championship, only to hit a midseason slump that kept him out of the running for a second straight year. To make matters worse, the rest of the organization continued to struggle, to the point where Harvick made public a decision not to pursue an extension with the team beyond 2006 until marked improvement with the team began to be shown on—- and off—- the track.
And that’s not even the half of it. Harvick’s continued to have several run-ins with drivers this season, among them Joe Nemechek after a wreck at the Nextel All-Star Challenge and Jimmie Johnson at Daytona in February, as well as usual suspects Greg Biffle or any other driver that stands in his way. Harvick has a way of coming off cocky, pulling off Intimidator-style tactics in a way that don’t really remind you of the former driver of the 3 car as much as they lead you to believe he’s all talk with nothing to back him up. It’s the story of a guy who never seems to do anything but rub people the wrong way, even if he’s in the right about what he says.
But this week, the outwardly strong Harvick found himself weakened, and for good reason. His father-in-law, former part-time Busch driver John Paul Linville, succumbed to cancer after a long and courageous battle. Certainly, Harvick’s personality, at least outwardly presented, is such that he’s not close with that many…but Linville was an exception. A former driver himself, Linville was someone who Harvick leaned on heavily through good times and bad, a true friend as well as family member that shed the image of the annoying in-laws who just can’t seem to make the right connection.
Harvick had previously skipped qualifying at Kansas a few weeks earlier to be with the ailing Linville, and could have likely taken off the Busch race this weekend if he had wanted time to grieve. Instead, RCR’s point man decided to do his grieving on the race track, doing what all great race car drivers do in times of personal and professional crisis—- simply rise to the occasion.
Harvick qualified the Busch car 3rd for Saturday’s race, and found himself with a solid Top 5 machine during the event. But as the race entered the second half, circumstances slowly began to fall Harvick’s way. Top contenders Kasey Kahne & Ryan Newman encountered problems, and Harvick was vaulted into the lead, where he held off main rival Greg Biffle for the win.
In Victory Lane, a usually brash Harvick was reduced to near tears as he exited his car. Just one look at his face, and you knew how much this win meant to someone suffering from a painful loss. The dramatic hugs from Richard Childress and wife DeLana weren’t a sight rarely seen, they were a genuine outpouring of love and support, an understanding of how much a win can help one lead to a different road…one of recovery.
It was in that moment, a Victory Lane interview where Harvick looked remorseful, thankful, and blessed to be in the position he was in, that perception changed. albeit temporarily. Words such as “thanks” and “support from the NASCAR community” revealed a fact some fans have certainly lost sight of—- Harvick, indeed, does have a heart. And despite all the statements through the years that have served to anger and alienate rather than win people over, notice how quickly feelings can change. Even Greg Biffle, more likely to be screaming at Harvick after a race than just about anybody else, expressed his happiness that if he couldn’t win, the 21 could end up in Victory Circle.
On a weekend where we were reminded in the case of Terrell Owens how selfish professional athletes can be, it was refreshing to see it proven that even NASCAR’s “villains,” or so portrayed by the media, do have a good side. You want to have a sport where you can rally around even the bad guys at a moment’s notice, and this sport proves that ability time and time again. It’s a give-and-take, an opportunity for drivers once labeled bad to shed that label once and for all.
Truth be told, Kevin Harvick’s tears shed a great deal of ill will handed his way by fans through the years. Now, let’s see if both sides can keep up their end of the bargain.
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