KERNERSVILLE, N.C. -- The door to the conference room cracked just a hair and a Chihuahua wearing a knit sweater ran in. The man at the head of the table plucked up the tiny dog in mid-sentence and gently cuddled it in his arms as he talked about the recent death of another pet and destroying the kitchen while preparing a seafood dinner for his wife.
"I tried to get it all cleaned up before she got home, but it didn't work out," Kevin Harvick said as he stroked Lo's head.
This hardly is the image one normally has of the man whose steely-eyed stare behind the wheel of a stock car or truck is as intense as that of a boxer trying to intimidate an opponent before a bout.
He's so focused at the track that autograph-seeking fans and even friends often are passed without him realizing they're there. He's sometimes so short with reporters that one recently wrote he hates the media.
It's not hate. Harvick is just so intent on being the best that everything outside the car is an unnecessary distraction that he doesn't deal with as well as others. It's a passion that stirred some controversy last season when there were reports that he wanted out of his contract with Richard Childress Racing because the performance of the organization was underwhelming.
It's that same passion that has Harvick atop the Sprint Cup standings and looking like a championship contender heading into the fourth race of the season, at Atlanta Motor Speedway where, in 2001, he captured his first victory.
But there is a soft and funny side to Harvick, one that many don't see within the confines of soft walls and grandstands. Shortly after this interview he duct-taped an employee to a chair. He once filled his father-in-law's pickup truck with 500 bouncy balls.
In many ways Harvick is like the legend he replaced in 2001, always pulling pranks, doing charitable work, totally unselfish things that never get mentioned and -- as far as he's concerned -- don't need to be.
"There's two different people," Harvick explained. "When I'm at the racetrack I have some responsibilities, but it's my job and ultimate responsibility to get everything I can out of that particular vehicle on that particular weekend.
"So it doesn't bother me if somebody says, 'Hey, stop and sign an autograph,' and you don't. It's my job to go out and perform on the track. Here I'm a lot more relaxed."
"Here" is Kevin Harvick Inc., the 80,000-square foot Truck and Nationwide Series race shop in Kernersville that Harvick calls his hobby. The 34-year-old native Californian spends more time here than he does at his home 15 minutes away.
It's like a haven, far away from most other shops close to Charlotte, a place to escape the pressures of the Cup world and everything that goes with it.
It's here that one understands why Harvick became so disenchanted with RCR last season. Here he stays a step ahead of the competition, willing to sell equipment to anybody with a checkbook because that means building another car or truck better than the previous one.
Every truck his team puts on the track Saturday at AMS will be new. The same for every car that will compete when the Nationwide Series resumes next week at Bristol.
That wasn't always the case last season at RCR, which failed to win a race or put a driver in the Chase while Harvick's truck team with Ron Hornaday Jr. at the wheel won the championship and his Nationwide car won two events.
"The biggest change this year [at RCR] is we have a whole fleet of good cars," said Harvick, who has finished second in the past two Cup races. "Last year, we had a few here and there. That's why you saw a lot of the inconsistency we had.
"A lot of times you're only as good as what you drive. That is very apparent. I'm the same person I was last year sitting behind the wheel when we won a lot of Nationwide and Truck races. At this level, you've got to have the right stuff."
Flashbacks to 2001
Harvick leaned back in the leather chair and tried to remember this time in 2001. It was like an amnesia patient recalling small flashbacks but nothing in great detail.
There was the meeting with owner Richard Childress the Wednesday after Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 and the press conference a few days later at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham.
"You walked in and all I remember was all the flashbulbs going off and there were hundreds of people," Harvick recalled. "I remember going, 'Oh, boy, this is going to be different.' "
The rest is a blur, from marrying Delana Linville in Las Vegas the next week to his first Cup victory three weeks later at Atlanta.
"The only thing I remember about Atlanta was coming to the white flag and people hanging on the fence on the back straightaway," said Harvick, who beat Jeff Gordon by .006 seconds. "I couldn't tell you about Victory Lane, any other situation that happened that year."
Harvick won one other race that season and finished ninth in points. The reality of Earnhardt's death and the impact it had on the company didn't hit until the following season, when he finished 21st in points.
Despite a strong showing in 2003, things didn't completely come together until 2006. Harvick had a dream season, winning five Cup races and finishing fourth in points. He also won nine Nationwide races to capture his second title.
He was indeed Happy Harvick, as he'd become known.
By then, KHI was well under way. It has since grown from one building with a rental apartment to a sprawling complex that has everything but a Cup team. One easily can imagine that, if and when Harvick decides the time is right. He already has a chassis dyno, something no other organization without a Cup program can claim.
It's all about staying ahead, just as it was when Harvick implemented a random drug testing program at KHI while NASCAR wondered if one was necessary.
These are all important things to consider, because this is the way Harvick thinks and these are the things he'll consider when he decides later in the year whether to stay at RCR, move to another team such as Stewart-Haas Racing as has been widely speculated, or start his own Cup program.
The good thing is he's in a happy place and not spending every waking minute talking about his future.
As Childress said last weekend at Las Vegas, the two are talking, and when the time comes to make an announcement, they will.
"Everything has flowed very well as far as how it's all worked," Harvick said. "Everybody knows where they stand as far as where everything is. We just go out and race every week and do the things we know how to do, and that's it."
In gold print on a black wall above the KHI garage is a quote from tennis star Jimmy Connors: "I hate to lose more than I love to win."
Harvick picked the phrase because it best sums him up as a competitor. No one can argue that it doesn't.
"I don't think people realize just how competitive I am," he said. "It's not fun losing, so you want to figure out why. Sometimes you get into that mode and there's nothing else you see, hear or care about. You just want to fix it and go forward."
Harvick wanted to fix it so badly last season that he often made those around him miserable.
"At times Kevin wanted to pull his hair out last year, but I did too," teammate Jeff Burton said.
Harvick always has been this way. Just look at his eyes behind the wheel of his first go-kart in a picture in the KHI lobby. It's the same intensity he later had as a high school wrestler.
"I don't think there is anything that could have better prepared me for what you go through mentally in this sport than wrestling," Harvick said. "You're kind of own your own, you have people saying you need to do this and do that, but in the end you have to rely on what you do to make things happen."
One could argue Harvick turned to wrestling mode -- or "kill attitude" as RCR vice president of competition Mike Dillon calls it -- last year when it appeared he was being pinned on everything from performance to his future.
"We all get frustrated," Dillon said. "When you're running badly, everybody's attitude is changed. I like his attitude now. I like the horseshoe quote."
Ah, the horseshoe quote. Jimmie Johnson won two weeks ago at California after he beat Burton to the finish line by the smallest of margins while coming off pit road when caution came out. It allowed the four-time defending Cup champion to take the lead he'd never relinquish.
Runner-up Harvick later referred to the golden horseshoe Johnson appeared to have up his well, you know.
"When he's loose and having fun like that it makes it more fun for everybody," Dillon said. "That's what we got away from last year."
Harvick doesn't make any apologies. His competitive spirit won't let him. Neither will his confidence, which never has suffered during a winless streak that dates back to the 2007 Daytona 500.
He fully believes the streak will end this weekend and that he has what it takes to take the title away from Johnson.
"We've won championships in everything else," Harvick said. "We've got every other trophy, whether it's the Truck championship as an owner, the Nationwide as a driver. As a driver they're all sitting in here, whether it's the Daytona 500, the Brickyard, they all have a home here.
"That's the only one missing."
And that will continue to drive Harvick to do whatever it takes to change that, soft side and all.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.