Growing pains aside, Harvick feels good
"It's one of those places where you come in and you don't think you can do anything wrong," said Harvick, who has led 188 laps in three Chicagoland visits. "You think that everything you do is going to be right."
That feeling of invincibility is somewhat familiar to Harvick. It's a similar sensation to what he experienced everywhere in 2001, when he embraced the unenviable task of replacing a fallen hero -- Dale Earnhardt. Harvick responded that season by recording two victories, finishing ninth in the standings and receiving Rookie of the Year honors.
"We kind of had a steel cage around us in 2001 and everything that came out of that (or) came at us was fended off because we were so busy," recalled Harvick, who also won the Busch Series Championship that season. "It just felt like everything that we did was right."
But it seemed everything they did in 2002 was wrong.
"2001 was pure adrenaline and 2002 was the first real year," said Harvick.
Despite his Chicago win that season, Harvick had a harsh reality check. He recorded six DNFs and finished 21st in the standings.
"When you come in you don't know what to expect and you think you're going to win every week," explained Harvick. "But it's quick to realize in Nextel Cup racing you can't do that, and everything has to be right and everything has to fall into place."
Things began to fall back into place in 2003. Harvick's rebound year included a win in the Brickyard 400 and a fifth place finish in the standings. But perhaps more significant, he began to shed the shadow of a legend and forge his own identity.
"I feel like all the guys on the team, those are my guys. And it's my car," Harvick said. "Earnhardt will always have the legacy with the Goodwrench car and that's the reason we have the little "3" on the side because he is the reason we have everything that we have."
Nonetheless, things have turned out differently than Harvick and those around him originally anticipated. The man once billed as the "next great driver" was suddenly eclipsed on the Young Gun ladder.
"Jimmie Johnson, he came in and has a lot of success in the Cup car and he's continued that, year in and year out," Harvick said. "And Ryan (Newman's) had a lot of success and Kurt (Busch) has been up and down a lot like we are but has capitalized on more wins."
Over the last two and a half seasons Johnson, Newman and Busch have scored a minimum nine wins each and have combined for a total of 28 victories. Meanwhile, Harvick has a total of four in that same stretch.
"We haven't really won as much as we thought we should but we've always been there," Harvick said. "We've always finished races. We've always put ourselves in position to run for a championship. That seems to be the big prize and that's what we need to continue doing."
Heading into Chicago, Harvick ranked 10th in the standings. He's clearly on the bubble when it comes to qualifying for this year's chase for the Nextel Cup.
"I think the whole point system this year has created a little bit more tension," he said. "We've got to make sure that we really stay on top of our game and do everything that we can do to keep a cushion behind us as much as we can."
That tension might actually make Harvick more of a championship threat than some other young guns. Harvick and the No. 29 team have already been hardened by adversity, which may make this team more resilient during the pressure-filled Chase for the Championship.
"We've made some mistakes and done things that we probably shouldn't have done," Harvick said, "but that's what makes our team stronger."
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.