Harvick hopes fury dies down in California

Updated: February 26, 2005, 12:43 AM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

When Kevin Harvick sent Jimmie Johnson spinning and caused a multi-car wreckage in a qualifying race three days before the Daytona 500, Joe Nemechek wasn't at all surprised.

"He just drives stupid," said the Chevy driver who was swept up in the mess.

Nemechek's next words were telling: "He'll get it back."

That wasn't a warning or a threat. It was just an observation from a veteran racer who believes you don't keep the nose of your car clean if you have enemies on the racetrack, and that you increase the likelihood of crashing with aggressive driving.

"You have to be there at the end to win the race," Nemechek said. "That's what can happen if you're [too aggressive]. You can cause a wreck or get caught up in somebody else's."

Indeed, Harvick's No. 29 Chevy, which he said didn't begin to run strong until the end of last Sunday's Daytona 500, got caught in a wreck and finished 27th after completing 198 of 203 laps.

Was it karma? Not according to Harvick, who repeated ad nauseam that he did not intentionally wreck Johnson in the qualifier. In fact, the two met that night at NASCAR's suggestion and buried the hatchet.

"I just got to him and he checked up and I got to him and I couldn't get off of him," Harvick explained. "I just spun him out and I feel sorry for the teams and everybody involved. It's not something where you want to bump draft in the middle of the corner. I hate it for all these GM Goodwrench guys. But, I just got to him and he slowed down and got sideways and I got the back of him."

Still, the incident during Speed Weeks was not the first time competitors have been angry with Harvick for, in their minds, causing a wreck. Harvick has been accused of over-aggressive racing in the past, and there was an allegation by Mark Martin's crew that Harvick made contact with Martin's car during practice before the Daytona 500, all of which has given Harvick a reputation -- deserved or not -- for being a wild man on the racetrack.

For his part, Harvick shrugs off the accusation. To the extent that other drivers accuse him of being a loose cannon on the track, he disagrees. To the extent that they think he's aggressive, he believes they're confusing that for hard racing.

Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick (29) and Joe Nemechek, right, tangled in a Gatorade Duel at Daytona. Nemechek seethed afterward.

Harvick's teammate Jeff Burton has become somewhat of a spokesperson for the young driver, and he says that Harvick is misunderstood.

"Kevin is a great race car driver," Burton said. "He's really fired up about this year. He thinks he's got a great chance to win a lot of races. I can help Kevin in some areas and he can help me in some areas. I don't think that Kevin is a guy that's aggressive.

"We wreck because we're competitive and when we try to do things we are competitive. And if we didn't care where we'd finish, there would never be a wreck. You know what I mean? If nobody cared how fast you went, there would never be a wreck."

Burton said that Harvick's passion for racing, and winning, is admirable. He added that resulting altercations are unintentional.

"He wants to win in the worst way -- and, because of that, sometimes he gets himself in some positions he may wish he hadn't have gotten in," Burton said. "But, he got there for the right reason. I have the utmost respect for Kevin. Kevin's been the perfect teammate.

"I will defend Kevin because he's a racer. And he wants to do the right thing and he wants to win. And like all of us, he doesn't always do the right thing, not because he doesn't want to. But he's trying hard and he's racing and I will defend him. But I think he defends himself just fine."

Harvick doesn't believe he's at any greater risk of getting caught up in wrecks because of how he races. Last season, he completed almost 97 percent of the laps raced on the circuit. And though he finished 14th in the points race, missing the 10-driver, 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup, he attributed that more to a bad outing at California Speedway late last season which dropped him out of the top 10. The team was never able to recover and sneak back into the Chase.

"I feel like this race cost us that chance at the championship," Harvick said as his team prepared to return to California Speedway for this weekend's Auto Club 500. "After that race, we tried some things and they just didn't work. I think that is where people look and say we had a terrible season."

The California native certainly would love to silence some of his critics in his home state this weekend, but it might be tough -- Harvick has only has one top-10 finish in five starts in Fontana.

Harvick's average finish at California Speedway? Not very impressive at 25.2.

But regardless where he finishes this week, Harvick would be wise to avoid causing trouble on the track. He said he doesn't expect any retaliation this weekend for the incidents during Speed Weeks at Daytona.

"I don't see why there would be," he said. "I know everything is good between me and Jimmie and hopefully once everybody got a chance to see the tape and calm down, that they know it was a racing deal and not intentional. I spoke with Mark [Martin] before the Daytona 500 and I know we are cool, so I think everything is fine in the garage."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.