Harvick spoils Junior Nation's party

4/4/2011 - NASCAR

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- No offense Kevin Harvick, but the majority of fans at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday weren't standing, screaming and waving their arms hoping you would win.

A good many probably were hoping you would stumble over that golden horseshoe you took from Jimmie Johnson on the final lap last week at California, even though we all know that really had nothing to do with luck.

That's the way it is when the driver you passed for the win with three laps remaining is the most popular in NASCAR, even more so when that driver hasn't won now in 99 starts.

Yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was that close to victory.

The crowd wanted it. Earnhardt could taste it. The sport needed it.

And Harvick spoiled it.


"I could see people just going crazy coming off Turn 2 when he took the lead from Kyle [Busch]," said Harvick, adjusting his hat and turning a shade of red to match his tall Budweiser can. "I was catching him. I was like, 'Man, I'm going to be the bad guy here, but I've got to do what I've got to do.'"

You can't blame Harvick for that. Earnhardt doesn't want to win because somebody let him. He wants to earn it just as Harvick has the past two weeks coming from almost out of nowhere to Victory Lane.

And as much of a smartass as Harvick admits he and his team can be, the Richard Childress Racing driver had to earn points with Junior Nation for the respect he showed Earnhardt.

"It was cool to see him back up there in contention for a win," said Harvick, who improved to 15th in points. "To race with Dale Jr., to win the race at Martinsville, it's something I think is pretty cool. … It was a lot of fun.

"I know the fans want to see him win. I want to see him win. It would be great for the sport. Today went a long way to showing how competitive they can be racing for wins. That's what we need. We all need him to win, but I'm not going to back down."

For much of this sun-splashed day -- and there were a track-record 31 lead changes, a red-flag situation to repair a hole in the wall after a horrific crash between Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne and much concern over tire wear -- neither Harvick nor Earnhardt was a threat to win.

Harvick at one point was so frustrated "I was ready to slit my wrist." Earnhardt believed he had no better than a seventh- to 10th-place car.

With 100 laps to go, this race appeared business as usual. Johnson and Denny Hamlin, who had combined to win the last nine races at this half-mile jewel, were third and fourth. Seven-time Martinsville champion Jeff Gordon was second.

Busch was leading.

But after a series of pit stops mixed around a caution that shuffled things around and a rare speeding penalty by Johnson, there were Busch, Harvick, Earnhardt and Matt Kenseth up front with 29 laps to go.

Earnhardt quickly moved to second as Harvick was shuffled back a few spots on the outside. Nine laps later, Earnhardt moved Busch out of the way to take the lead, sending the crowd of 60,000 into a frenzy.

Junior Nation was alive.

Earnhardt was alive.

"I was thinking at the end that I was meant to win that damn race," Earnhardt said. "Hell, I'm not sitting there leading that thing by seven car lengths thinking I'm about to lose."

Then here comes bad boy Harvick. He knew he had a faster car. So did his spotter Billy O'Dea, saying, "Put the pressure on. He'll make a mistake."

To Earnhardt's credit, he didn't. He held his own with a car that was sliding badly. He kept Harvick in his rearview mirror for a few laps, and even tried a crossover move once Harvick got the advantage to take the lead.

"I tried to make it work but I couldn't really get up under him enough," Earnhardt said. "He crowded me the way he was supposed to do.

"And that was that."

You could almost hear a collective sigh in the grandstands. Earnhardt was so spent afterward that he had to sit on the pit wall to collect himself after a quick apology to Busch for getting into him.

"We all want to see Dale Jr. win a race," said Harvick's boss, Richard Childress, who won six Sprint Cup championships with Earnhardt's father. "If one of our four cars can't win, I'd like to see him win.

"Dale Jr. will win races. He will come back. We have been in that situation. We have had a long, dry spell, so I know what it would have meant if he could have won that race."

Harvick leaves Martinsville knowing it would take a catastrophe for him not to make the Chase. He has two victories that make him practically a lock for the wild card and he has the confidence that no matter how bad his team starts the weekend, it can win.

Earnhardt leaves with much more.

He leaves knowing he had a chance to win.

With the exception of the Daytona 500 the past two seasons -- which is a different animal because of his knack for restrictor-plate tracks -- Earnhardt hasn't experienced that.

Neither have his fans, which is why they were on pins and needles until Harvick spoiled their day.

And as excited as Earnhardt was to be in the position he was, he was disappointed he couldn't finish it. That also is a good sign from a driver whose desire and work ethic have been questioned like nobody in the sport before him.

When asked what it's going to take to prove that he's back, Earnhardt quietly and calmly said, "Well, I ain't really proved it to myself, yet. I'll let you know when I feel I'm back, personally."

He's close, though.

Harvick understands. He was so frustrated two years ago that he was ready to walk away from Richard Childress Racing. Now he's become one of the more fun-loving characters in the garage.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Well, I ain't really proved it to myself, yet. I'll let you know when I feel I'm back, personally.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Just listen to him after crew chief Gil Martin explained why he gave the "Days of Thunder" speech at the end about having a perfectly matched set of tires.

"In the end, we are all just a bunch of sarcastic smartasses," Harvick said. "That's really the only way we know how to communicate with each other. We can't communicate like normal people."

One day soon Earnhardt will finish what he started on Sunday. One day he may be able to show his emotions as Harvick does, without being scrutinized or criticized.

What Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte have accomplished in six races, recording three top-10s and being a solid eighth in points, is arguably more impressive than Harvick's two wins.

"I know it don't look like it, but I've got such a hell of an opportunity," Earnhardt said. "I want to run like this. I want to finish like this and run a little better than this on every weekend, and we are right on the outside of that. You know, and it's frustrating to be that close. It was frustrating to be leading the race … inside of 10 laps to go and be passed.

"But there's definitely a brighter side to what's going on, too, and I won't forget to notice that."

Those standing, screaming and cheering at Martinsville certainly notice it. They, like Earnhardt, tasted it.

Then Harvick spoiled it.

"Obviously, there's a lot of attention on anything that Dale Jr. does, and to be racing him for the win is something … I don't remember ever doing before, but it was fun to do today."

It was fun to watch, too.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.