Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway will mark Harvick’s 677th career start in the series, one more than the total career starts of the driver he replaced in 2001, the late Dale Earnhardt.
Earnhardt died in a last-lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500, which was his 676th career start. The next week, Richard Childress Racing tapped Harvick to drive Earnhardt’s car – rebranded from No. 3 to No. 29 – for the remainder of the year.
Two weeks later, Harvick secured his first series win, outlasting Jeff Gordon in a side-by-side duel to the finish at Atlanta and his career ballooned from there.
“It should make a lot of us standing here feel old,” Harvick said on Friday at Talladega about his milestone start. “I think, as you look back and you don’t realize how long it actually has been and – and you guys have heard me say this before – but in the beginning it was really hard to understand the magnitude of the circumstances the first couple years, just because you didn’t really understand much about what was going on as you got into the second year and really started to understand what happened the year before.
“Sometimes you do things and then all of a sudden you get past those things and you haven’t really taken in all of the things that happen because you just didn’t understand them. Really, that first particular year we raced so much and the team protected me from so many things because we were on the road so much and didn’t have to really understand the magnitude of it, but there was no hiding from it over an offseason and the next year, as the expectations changed.
“But when you look at, like when I came in, we started racing 36 races and so it happened a little bit quicker than it would have with – I don’t know what the total number of years (Earnhardt raced) were – but I’m sure it’s more (his career covered 27 years).”
It seems perfect timing that Harvick will surpass Earnhardt’s career start mark at Talladega, a track on which the former seven-time Cup series champion enjoyed his most success (10 wins) and won his last race in October 2000.
Earnhardt and Harvick’s former team owner, Richard Childress, will pace the field in Sunday’s race behind the wheel of the No. 3 Chevrolet Earnhardt drove to the final victory of his career. Childress will be joined in the car by Johnny Morris, founder of RCR sponsor Bass Pro Shops.
Harvick, now 43 years old, has enjoyed a resurgence of his career since moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. He’s added 25 race wins and a series championship since and doesn’t appear ready to stop anytime soon.