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Harvick 'more mature' as he makes 400th start

March 31, 2012, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Kevin Harvick won his first Cup Series race at Atlanta in just his third career start. (Getty Images)

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Driver says it's taken eight years for RCR to move forward from loss of Earnhardt

In the opinion of the man who replaced Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing, the death of NASCAR's seven-time champion in the 2001 Daytona 500 was not only a huge blow to the sport, but a loss that took RCR nearly eight years from which to recover.

When Kevin Harvick rolls off second Sunday in the Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, it'll mark his 400th career Cup start. Now 36 and having competed for Childress since landing a now-Nationwide Series ride for the team in 2000, Harvick has a unique perspective on how far RCR fell -- and how long of a rebuilding process it's been.

"I'm just really proud of what he's done and where he's at. I just want to be there when he wins that championship. "

--RICHARD CHILDRESS

And with a new generation of racers in Austin and Ty Dillon, Harvick feels the situation at RCR is as good as it's ever been.

"I feel like it's taken seven or eight years to get through the Earnhardt transition," Harvick said. "There's a lot of things you look back on now and that effect took a lot of time. Then as the grandkids -- Austin and Ty -- came, you [can] really see that enthusiasm level come back that I first saw in Richard in 1999 and 2000 as we led into the start of my career at RCR."

After Earnhardt was killed, Harvick -- then a 25-year-old with a total of three wins at the national series level -- was hastily called in as a replacement. He scored an emotional victory at Atlanta in his fourth start, then won again later in the season at Chicagoland.

But Harvick was unable to maintain that early success the next four seasons. It wasn't until 2006 -- when he won five races and finished fourth in the points -- he started to feel comfortable in his growing role as team flag-bearer.

"I think there was definitely a lull as a company that we had from 2002 to 2009," Harvick said. "I believe 2010 and 2011 were solid years and [the team has] built into a solid relationship. I think the results are on the race track with more wins and pretty much [being] competitive week-in and week-out. That's something you can see [in] that comfort level with everybody, it's just taken a while."

Harvick's life has changed significantly since his Cup debut 11 seasons ago. Along the way, he started -- and shut down -- a championship race team. He got married, and now is in the process of starting a family.

And his relationship with Childress has matured as well. Harvick refers to it as a "comfort level and understanding," and Childress agrees with that assessment.

"It's just gotten better over time because of the time we've been able to spend together," Childress said. "All the talking about everything from business to just life."

Childress has seen all this before.

"I reflect back to Dale Earnhardt," Childress said. "One of the best things that ever happened to him was when he got his race team. He understood all the things that we'd go through."

Harvick is no longer the feisty, hot-headed young buck who found himself in NASCAR's "penalty box" after being suspended for rough driving in a 2002 Martinsville Truck race. Now he's a veteran driver and consistently in contention for that long-elusive Cup championship.

When Harvick looks back at 11 seasons and 400 starts, he sees a more mature person. And Childress concurs.

"All of us have matured; he's no different than anybody else," Childress said. "He understands the sport better, and the more you're around it -- like him -- you just learn a lot of different things about it.

"I'm just really proud of what he's done and where he's at. I just want to be there when he wins that championship."