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Reborn Kevin Harvick Proves His Metal

During the weeks leading up to the Daytona 500, Richard Childress kept telling his race team he had a feeling they were going to win NASCAR's biggest event.

"We had a luncheon for our 400 employees about four weeks ago and I told them I just had a gut feeling we were going to win it," Childress said Monday.

On Friday, when Kevin Harvick was downcast after a difficult practice session, telling Childress he thought he had "a 10th- or 15th-place car," Childress replied: "You can win it."

It was an infectious thought that Harvick took to heart.

After struggling through much of Sunday's race, Harvick found himself in seventh when a crash brought out a red flag on lap 196 of what was scheduled to be a 200-lap event. As Harvick sat in his No. 29 Chevrolet, he told his team over the radio, "I'm gonna win this thing."

The race went to a two-lap overtime sprint and Harvick was still sixth, locked in a huge, scary pack of cars, after the first heart-thumping lap around the 2.5-mile oval. But, with drafting help from Matt Kenseth and RCR teammate Jeff Burton, Harvick somehow wound up winning, beating Mark Martin by the length of a hood as cars crashed and banged behind them.

It was more than a win for Harvick and Childress, though. It was more validation of their decision midway through last season to remain together.

The 31-year-old Harvick, who stepped into the Nextel Cup ride a year early because of the death of seven-time champion and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500, came to a crossroads in 2006.

He was working on the final year of his original contract with Childress and trying to decide, in the wake of a couple of pretty bad seasons for RCR, if staying was the right way to go.

"Until the contract was signed, there was limbo," said Harvick's wife, Delana. "Richard and Kevin were always open and honest with each other about where they stood. But, for me, watching it play itself out in the media was a little disheartening because there were a lot of things said that weren't true and I didn't want that to affect the team.

"But the ink wasn't even dry yet and there was a whole new mind-set of that team because they know it's for real, they know he's coming back and that they're all pulling the right direction. I think you can see that from that point to the end of last year. Things just took off.

With the renewed commitment by Harvick and Childress and some critical leadership from Burton, things turned around at RCR, with Harvick winning five races and the two drivers making the Chase for the championship and raising expectations for this year and beyond.

The only previous RCR win in the Daytona 500 was by Earnhardt in 1998. Childress, who spent more than 17 seasons with his close friend Earnhardt as his driver, said this win says more about Harvick than anything he has done since their contact was extended through 2009.

The owner shakes his head in wonder when he reminds people that Harvick stepped into Earnhardt's car _ repainted and renumbered from 3 to 29 _ just five days after the death of the seven-time series champion.

"If you're not really close to it like we were, I don't think anyone could ever imagine or realize the pressure that Kevin was under (in 2001) and the pressure that followed, even 2002 and beyond," Childress said. "I don't know of many people that could have handled the kind of pressure that he was under constantly.

"If he hadn't been able to handle the pressure and do the things that he did for us in 2001, RCR might not even have been here today."

Harvick, who now has 11 Cup wins, is no longer the guy who raises the hackles of his competitors on a regular basis or gets in constant trouble with NASCAR for rough driving or saying the wrong thing.

"We've really worked hard to try to head that in the right direction," Harvick said. "Sometimes people feel like we're laying low or nt saying what we should say, but we still get to voice our opinion.

"Sometimes you just have to pick and choose your battles. I'm still going to say how I feel about things but, sometimes, it's better just to let things play out."

Delana Harvick is proud of her husband and the distance he has come.

"It's hard to expect somebody to just come in and maintain that leadership role that really needed to carry that 29 team," she said. "I mean, this was a kid that had just raced a couple of years in the Busch Series. He knew what it took to be a hard race car driver, but really didn't have a good understanding of what it took to be a leader.

"Over the years, he's made a lot of mistakes, but he's human and I think he's learned from those. And, on the flip side, Richard really has mentored Kevin a lot."

Now he's a Daytona 500 champion.

"And I'll tell you one thing, the next time Richard Childress tells me he has a gut feeling, I'm going to believe him," Harvick said, laughing.