Will Earnhardt legacy propel Harvick?

11/18/2010 - NASCAR

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Denny Hamlin was asked Thursday about a last-lap option if the Sprint Cup title is on the line. Would he wreck Jimmie Johnson or Kevin Harvick to win the title?

"I don't know how high I could hold that trophy if I did," Hamlin said. "I'm not gonna sell out."

It was the politically correct answer, one that Harvick had no intention of giving.

"I'll sleep fine," Harvick said. "I'll do whatever I have to do."

The room roared with laughter. It was pure Harvick. Dale Earnhardt couldn't have said it better, and he would have said it just that way.

How appropriate since Harvick is the man who got in Earnhardt's car almost 10 years ago. And the legion of Earnhardt fans hasn't forgotten.

"This week has been very different for me," Harvick said. "All the old-school Earnhardt fans have come out of nowhere. The support this week from the fans has been unbelievable, some of them who said they haven't watched races in a while."

They are hoping Harvick can perform a little Earnhardt magic, racing like the master when he needs it the most.

In this dream finale of the Chase, Harvick has some work to do in Sunday's Ford 400 (1:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). He's third in the three-man show, 46 points behind Hamlin and 31 behind Johnson.

But Harvick has something the other two drivers don't have -- the love from thousands of people who cherish NASCAR's long-lost icon.

"This is no disrespect to Dale Jr.," Harvick said. "He's had a couple of tough years. But those people are looking for something to grab onto. Those people are looking for something that was attached to Dale Sr. so they can say they are back on top again."

"It's been overwhelming this week what I've heard from Dale Jr. fans and Dale Sr. fans. It's been a big eye-opener for me."

Harvick knew those fans were around, but not like this. They e-mailed him. They tweeted him. Hundreds of them, all with a similar message: "Do this for Dale. Do it for the Earnhardts. Do it for Richard Childress."

Earnhardt won six of his seven championships at Richard Childress Racing, but the last one was 16 years ago, seven years before Earnhardt lost his life in the 2001 Daytona 500.

The outpouring of affection has touched Harvick, but he doesn't feel pressure to answer the fans' prayers.

"I don't think there's any more pressure," Harvick said. "I've been through all that pressure from my first day on the job."

No NASCAR driver in history entered the sport with more attention than Harvick received in 2001 when Childress picked him to replace Earnhardt.

"It's almost like we did this backwards," Harvick said. "It started with the weight of the world on my shoulders and the biggest press conference I will ever have in my whole life. It's like I was preparing for these situations before I ever even got started."

Being the guy tabbed to drive Earnhardt's car was enormous pressure, even though Childress wisely changed the number of the Chevy from the famous 3 to 29 so Harvick could have his own identity.

But everyone knew, of course, it was Earnhardt's car and Earnhardt's team. Over the years, it became too much for Harvick.

"I went through a stage where I didn't want to hear anything else about Dale Earnhardt," Harvick said. "I didn't care about his fans and I didn't care what he did."

Those feelings are behind him.

"Over the last couple of years I realized all those things were a compliment," Harvick said. "When they talk about me in relationship to Dale, it means you are having success on the track and doing things right."

Now he embraces the legacy he inherited. He understands that as long as he stays at RCR he will have a connection to Earnhardt and his fans.

"It's impossible to not be connected," Harvick said. "I tried for years to disconnect that, but everything at RCR was built with Richard and Dale. You can't get away from that, but I've learned it's something I don't want to get away from.

"I want those comparisons. It's great to carry that legacy on and compete for championships. That's what we're supposed to do. And all those fans mean a lot to me."

Harvick's even using a little of The Intimidator's old tactics. He looked at Hamlin during the Thursday news conference, had a Cheshire cat smile and said: "He definitely seems to be the most nervous."

It was Harvick who had frazzled nerves one year ago. It appeared he had decided to leave RCR and the Earnhardt connection behind him.

He was feuding with Childress when all the RCR cars failed to make the Chase. Harvick's contract was up after 2010. He was on his way out, or so it seemed.

But Childress convinced Harvick they could turn things around. Harvick led the standings most of this season and all three RCR cars made the Chase.

Harvick signed a new deal with RCR and will have Budweiser as his primary sponsor next season.

"Richard and I put a lot of things to bed, personally and professionally," Harvick said. "He wants to be in Victory Lane and he wants to win the championship. Those are a lot of the things Richard and I realized last year when we went through our spat. We wanted the same goals."

The ultimate goal is within their grasp now. Childress said his emotions may get the best of him if they get it done on Sunday.

"It would be very special for RCR," Childress said. "I've been there, but we have so many people here now who haven't. If we get down to the final 10 laps and have a shot, I may have to jump off the truck and not look."

Don't believe it. Childress will look and think of Earnhardt, the man he loved.

Harvick will think of Earnhardt, too, and embrace the noble inheritance he once wanted to ignore.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.