Kevin Harvick, a competitive Busch Series driver, replaced the late Dale Earnhardt to drive for the remainder of the season. Harvick’s selection was met with much speculation, yet since team owner Richard Childress owned both Harvick’s Busch team as well as this Winston Cup team, it really was no surprise. Childress at first resolved to never field another black car number three, changing Harvick’s car color to white and the number to twenty-nine. As a newcomer to the series, Harvick would also be running against the five existing candidates for 2001 Rookie of the Year. While the first two races after the Daytona 500 were understandably solemn, Harvick maintained strong finishes in these races by running at the end of both. When Harvick and the other drivers arrived at Atlanta for the Cracker Barrel 500, Harvick’s car colors were changed to white and red since the prior paint scheme was confused by many with that of Brett Bodine. The stage was set as polesitter Dale Jarrett led the field to the start of the race.
Harvick somehow managed to stay up front for much of the race, suddenly taking the lead in a daring three-wide pass on the inside of Dale Jarrett and Jerry Nadeau late in the going. On the last lap, Harvick was still leading, but Jeff Gordon’s Chevrolet had assumed the second position and was catching up quickly. Harvick was able to hold him off on the outside of the track until the two approached the final turn with Gordon pulling even with the rookie on the inside. The two remained this way all the way to the finish line, Gordon nearly colliding with the slower car of Brett Bodine as a photo finish ensued. After a few moments of reviewing replays of the final lap, Harvick was declared the winner in only his third start by a mere six thousandths of a second (.006). Never since the series’ infancy had a driver won so early in his career. Upon finding this out, the ecstatic rookie drove slowly on the track in the opposite direction, holding up three fingers out of the driver’s side window to the crowd in memory of the fallen Earnhardt.
Now, everyone was talking about Kevin Harvick! A new star was born and a new era had begun.
Miles and I had begun to enjoy Fox’s coverage of 2001's Winston Cup races. In a touching tribute to Dale Earnhardt, the announcers decided to stay silent on lap three of every race in memory of the driver as the crowd each held up three fingers. To clear the air of Daytona’s aftermath the day before that eventful Atlanta race, I organized that Miles and I each select a "gambling driver." The "gambling driver" method was for both of us to select a driver who had never won a race and see which of them would win first this season. My selection was Robert Pressley, who had been racing full-time since 1995 and had just started to finish better last season. Miles picked out Mike Skinner, a local of Susanville, California who led the final stages of two races in 2000, but lost to Dale Earnhardt in both of them. I’ll tell you more about Pressley and Skinner later on.
There were many remarkable moments such as Harvick’s win throughout the first half of the 2001 season. Mild-mannered Virginian driver Elliott Sadler, in only his third full year on the circuit, won his first Winston Cup race at Bristol in March, having started all the way back in thirty-eighth position in a field of forty-three. At Sears Point in June, our family participated in holding up three fingers with the rest of the crowd on lap three, witnessing hard-luck driver Robby Gordon lead many laps in the race only to lose the lead at the end to eventual winner Tony Stewart. In July, my "gambling driver," Robert Pressley, finished a career-best second place to Kevin Harvick in the inaugural race at the new Chicagoland Speedway in Illinois. Normally quiet driver Sterling Marlin began to show his aggressive side, slamming into the rear of Tony Stewart’s Pontiac late in the Chicagoland race, causing Stewart to spin into the infield. Luckily, injuries were sustained only to Stewart’s car. During the same race, Miles’ "gambling driver," Mike Skinner, was injured after a hard crash early in the event. Skinner was, thankfully, able to walk away, but eventually decided to sit out the rest of the season.
Perhaps the best moment of this period since Harvick’s win at Atlanta was when the Winston Cup Series returned to Daytona for the first time since Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death. It was on this warm July night that all eyes were on Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the overwhelming favorite to win the season’s fastest evening race. Although four Dodge drivers held the first four qualifying positions with Sterling Marlin on the pole, Earnhardt, Jr. was quick to get his car up front and stay there, much to the approval of the crowd. When the race restarted after a late caution with only six laps to go, Earnhardt, Jr. found himself mired back in sixth position behind a group of cars who only took two tires to his four in hopes of winning the event. All looked lost until Earnhardt, Jr. flew through the pack once again when the race restarted, putting his Chevrolet out front with only four laps to go.
By that time, his familiar teammate, Michael Waltrip, looking to win his second straight Daytona event, stayed right behind Earnhardt, Jr., causing the two to draft away from much of the pack. As the checkered flag fell, Earnhardt, Jr. and Waltrip finished the race one-two, with Elliott Sadler finishing a close third after starting in his lucky thirty-eighth place spot. As the entire crowd stood up and cheered the youthful winner, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spun his car on the infield grass, coming to a stop as Waltrip stopped his car alongside. Then, as the crews from both teams approached the scene, the two drivers climbed on top of Waltrip’s car, hugging one another in a combined celebration.
Earnhardt, Jr. had done it; conquering the legendary track in memory of his equally legendary father.