Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Motor Mouth: A tale of two racers named Harvick and Earnhardt Jr.

Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images
And so they meet again.

When Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s racecar sputtered and slowed to a crawl in turn 4 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the final lap of the Coca-Cola 600, Kevin Harvick was right there to pass him for the win, his third of the season and his first in NASCAR’s longest race.

It was the second time this year that the win had come down to Harvick and Earnhardt Jr. The circumstances were different: At Martinsville, Harvick had the faster car when he passed Dale Jr. with a handful of laps to go, while at Charlotte, Dale Jr.’s gas tank ran dry with half a lap left and his car gave up 500 feet before the start-finish line, opening the door for Harvick. But the result was the same: Harvick emerged victorious, adding on to his win total and all but securing a spot in the Chase this year, while Earnhardt Jr. was once again denied the trip to victory lane, a place he last visited 105 races ago.

Harvick can relate to Earnhardt Jr. as the latter aims to break a longstanding drought. It was only last year that Harvick shattered a 115-race winless streak, winning what would be his first of three victories in 2010 at the spring Talladega race. Harvick himself had some “almost wins” beforehand: he lost his chance at Auto Club Speedway when he hit the wall while challenging Jimmie Johnson in the final laps, and finished second again to Johnson the next week at Las Vegas.

Many in the NASCAR community at that time said Harvick would find himself in victory lane; it was just a matter of time. Harvick echoed these words Sunday when he spoke about Earnhardt Jr.

Credit: Tom Pennington/
Getty Images for NASCAR
“I feel so stinking bad for him, and I know how bad he wants it,” Harvick said. “But it's -- it'll happen. They keep running like that, it'll happen.”

Earnhardt Jr. sits solidly in 4th place in points, the highest he has consistently placed in the standings since 2008, the last year he made the Chase for the Sprint Cup. His six top 10s in just the first third of the season shine against the 13 top 10s he had in 2009 and 2010 combined, an indication of how far the No. 88 has come. After a crew chief shuffle at Hendrick Motorsports that paired Dale Jr. with Steve Letarte, the No. 88 has not only found consistency but has contended for multiple race wins, at Martinsville, Talladega and Charlotte. The team not only sits poised to make the Chase, but to make a legitimate run at the title.

As the No. 88’s performance has significantly strengthened on the track – the Coca-Cola 600 was the team’s best race from start to finish this season - so has the confidence of its driver.

After Sunday’s heart-wrenching loss, Earnhardt Jr. said to his crew on the radio, “I'm really happy to be with you guys. You all have made me a hell of a driver. We're going to get us one.” This is the most confident I have heard Dale Jr. sound in years.

A win is coming. Just ask someone else who was once in Earnhardt Jr.’s position – Harvick.


IN IT TO WIN IT

Credit: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images for NASCAR
While talk about the Sprint Cup title run has centered mainly on five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, points leader Carl Edwards and wild child Kyle Busch, Harvick has flown under the radar, even though before the 600, he was one of three drivers to boast multiple wins this season. But with his third victory, Harvick leads the series in wins and asserts himself as a title contender.

Yes, there’s still time for the championship picture to change, but as Harvick sits 2nd in points, it would take something catastrophic for the No. 29 to fall out of the top 10. Even if that were to happen, his three wins would secure him a Chase wildcard spot as long as he were to stay in the top 20 in points.

It’s also noteworthy that all of Harvick’s wins this year have come on tracks he never won on previously (save his past All-Star win at Charlotte). Look out for the No. 29 team as Harvick continues to conquer tracks that once evaded him.


SOUL BROTHERS?

As this column continues to focus on Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the two share quite a few similarities in their careers. Let’s take a look:

  • After the death of the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001, Earnhardt Jr. and Harvick were thrust into the spotlight and the famed racer’s shadow: Earnhardt Jr. as his son and Harvick as his replacement at Richard Childress Racing. Ten years later, it’s only now that Harvick is talking more about the pressures he faced and how he has come to accept his place in Earnhardt Sr.’s legacy. But if there’s one person who can relate to the scrutiny that Earnhardt Jr. has been under since his father’s death, it’s Harvick.
  • Earnhardt Jr. and Harvick claim two Nationwide (then Busch) Series championships to their name. Dale Jr. won the title in 1998 and 1999, while Harvick’s championships came in 2001 and 2006.
  • The two drivers are close in Sprint Cup wins. Earnhardt Jr. has 18, while the Coca-Cola 600 marked Harvick’s 17th series win.
  • Earnhardt Jr. and Harvick have both won the Daytona 500 and the All-Star Race, two of the most prestigious events at NASCAR's top level.
  • Highest-finishing position in Sprint Cup points standings: 3rd (Earnhardt Jr. in 2003 and Harvick in 2010).
  • Both are successful team owners outside the Sprint Cup Series. Harvick and his wife DeLana own Kevin Harvick Inc., operating a championship-winning Truck Series program as well as teams in the Nationwide Series. Dale Jr. is part owner of JR Motorsports, which fields teams in the Nationwide Series and local weekly late model divisions.

Motor Mouth is a weekly column in which Skirts and Scuffs lead editor Rebecca Kivak spouts off about the latest NASCAR happenings. Continue the conversation by leaving a comment below. To read past columns and other posts by Rebecca, click here.

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