KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Jimmy John’s/Budweiser Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), won his first Sprint Cup Series race in only his third career Sprint Cup Series start on March 11, 2001 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. This weekend, Harvick returns to the site of his maiden victory for Sunday’s Folds of Honor 500 as the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.
The circumstances surrounding the month leading up to Harvick’s first career Sprint Cup win in 2001 make it all the more remarkable.
Following Dale Earnhardt’s death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Harvick was named the driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing and made his Sprint Cup debut Feb. 26 at Rockingham (N.C.) Speedway, where he finished 14th. The following Wednesday, February 28, as the Sprint Cup Series headed west to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Harvick married his wife DeLana. That Sunday, March 4, Harvick scored his first career Sprint Cup top-10. Then, on March 11, less than one month since his debut in NASCAR’s top series, Harvick won his first Sprint Cup race at Atlanta.
Harvick’s first win also didn’t come easily. With five laps remaining and Harvick racing in the third position, he chased down NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Dale Jarrett for second, then driver Jerry Nadeau for the lead. Once he took the lead, Harvick had to hold off another future Hall of Fame driver in Jeff Gordon to secure the win. As Harvick and Gordon raced door-to-door to the finish line, Harvick prevailed to secure his first win by 0.006 of a second.
Harvick has gone on to win 28 Sprint Cup races among his 115 top-five finishes and 230 top-10s, and he’s earned 14 pole positions to go with last year’s Sprint Cup Championship in the 14 years since.
Since his maiden Sprint Cup win at Atlanta, Harvick has reached victory lane at Atlanta on four other occasions, three times in the NASCAR Xfinity Series – including his last two Xfinity Series starts in 2013 and 2014 – and once in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
In 24 Sprint Cup starts at Atlanta, the defending Sprint Cup champion has one win, one pole, five top-five finishes and nine top-10s, and he’s led 432 laps. He has an average starting position of 18.5 and average finish of 18.8, and he’s completed nearly 98 percent of the 7,760 laps contested.
The Bakersfield, California native came close to adding a second Sprint Cup win at Atlanta last September, when he won the pole and led 195 of 335 laps before late-race tire strategy by several drivers led to a multi-car wreck involving his No. 4 Chevrolet.
This weekend, Harvick will attempt to add that elusive second Sprint Cup win at the 1.54-mile oval in Sunday’s Folds of Honor 500. He will also race the No. 88 Bad Boy Buggies Chevrolet Camaro for JR Motorsports on Saturday in search of his third consecutive Atlanta Xfinity Series win.
KEVIN HARVICK, Driver of the No. 4 Jimmy John’s/Budweiser Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What’s it like to be back at the site of your first Sprint Cup win?
“You can’t ever win the first one twice. To come back here and know everything that was attached to that first win is something you look back on and realize the magnitude of the situation. I guess the second thing is I can’t believe that we haven’t won here since. This is definitely one of my favorite racetracks and we’ve led a ton of laps here. For whatever reason, on Sundays, we haven’t been able to put the finishing touches on it. Fridays and Saturdays in the Truck Series and the Xfinity Series, we’ve won a ton of races, but hopefully we can end that Sprint Cup streak this weekend. I’m looking forward to having Folds of Honor there this weekend. They’re a big part of all the sponsors on our car and I would call Major Dan a good friend. He participates a lot in the activities we do. Usually, for whatever reason, when you’re around Major Dan, we’ve had a lot of success over the next weekend’s race, so hopefully we can go to victory lane and have someone from the Folds of Honor hand us that trophy.”
What’s it like to have Atlanta back earlier on the Sprint Cup schedule?
“Well, I guess I’m going to show my age a little bit. When I first started, you went to Rockingham after Daytona, and then the third race of the season was Atlanta, but to come back here early in the season again is better for the crew guys more than anything. It allows them to really get their stuff together. You spend so much time and effort going to Daytona and it’s really like its own animal. To have to load those cars up and send those trucks off to the West Coast on Monday morning was always a pretty big burden on the race shops, so I think if you look at being able to come to Atlanta – which is close to home – and really catch your breath after Daytona is good for those guys. So, to now come to Atlanta the second race is better for the teams, and we can have all the logistics of what it takes to race three weeks in a row on the West Coast in order.”
What do you like about the Atlanta Motor Speedway layout?
“I just love the abrasiveness of the racetrack. It still has a lot of speed for the first three or four laps, but then it has a lot of fall-off and a lot of bumps that give it character. As a driver, you just love the challenge that comes with racing at Atlanta. This is always one that I circle on my calendar as a favorite and I look forward to racing here in Atlanta this weekend.”
You like Atlanta Motor Speedway, but do you think you should have more Sprint Cup wins there?
“I feel like we should have won four or five races there, to tell you the truth – (especially) if you look at the amount of laps led. Last year we had a pretty dominant car until we had some tire strategy at the end and wound up getting crashed. It’s been a really good racetrack for me, personally. I know last year we had a really, really good car. We go there looking to have an opportunity to win the race.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine