CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Now that the ordeal has been in his rearview mirror for nearly a decade, Kevin Harvick acknowledges there was a time when he didn't want anything to do with Dale Earnhardt's legacy.
Harvick abruptly took the wheel at Richard Childress Racing in 2001, days after Earnhardt died in a crash at Daytona. With all those heavy hearts for Earnhardt came even heavier scrutiny for Harvick.
The cars he was driving bore No. 29 on the side, but everybody - including Earnhardt's soul-stricken legion of fans - knew they were just Earnhardt's No. 3s with new paint jobs.
In hindsight, Harvick acknowledges that the pressure of replacing a legend under the most awkward of circumstances was too much to take at times. But now that he's racing for a NASCAR championship of his own, Harvick has grown to embrace the Earnhardt legacy.
"I embraced it zero in the beginning," Harvick said Thursday, as drivers prepared for Sunday's Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Ford 400 qualifying takes place today (3 p.m., ESPN2). "I wanted to change the color of the car, I wanted new sponsors. If he wore a white suit, I wanted a black suit. I wanted zero to do with it."
Today, Harvick says he has a better perspective.
"You get a little bit older and you really start listening, and you really start understanding: People aren't trying to make you into him, it's just a part of our company that you have to be comfortable with," Harvick said. "And I've gotten comfortable with that."
Now Harvick is in position to deliver another title to Earnhardt's former car owner and close friend, Richard Childress.
Harvick is third in the standings going into Sunday's race, 46 points behind leader Denny Hamlin and 31 points behind Jimmie Johnson.
Harvick believes he is ready to run for a title.
"It all has worked backwards for me with coming in, with taking over Dale's car," he said. "You started with the biggest press conference you'll ever be a part of in your whole life. You start with the weight of the world on your shoulders. As it's gone through the years, it's gotten easier. It's almost like you've gotten prepared for these situations before you even got started."
Harvick still vividly remembers the details of his first race as Earnhardt's replacement, from the bright lights of a news conference to a private conversation with Dale Earnhardt Jr. But Harvick remembers almost nothing about winning at Atlanta, because it all became a blur.
Just 25 then, he turned off some fans and driver with his brash style, becoming known as "The Instigator" - a derisive play on Earnhardt's nickname "The Intimidator."
Harvick received a somewhat unexpected boost this week: a wave of messages from Earnhardt fans who want to see Harvick win it all.
"It's a little bit different week than I've ever had," Harvick said. "It's kind of brought it all full circle. And you realize that those people are still out there and still love the sport and still love everything that happens at RCR and have kind of found that hole, I guess, that's been missing, and that's been the competitive nature of what used to be the 3 car in the 29 car. And it's very rewarding to know that those people are still out there."