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Thursday, March 7

Harvick made first splash at Atlanta
Associated Press

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Kevin Harvick's first hint he had done something special last March at Atlanta Motor Speedway came when he saw crewman Danny "Chocolate" Myers crying.

Harvick, making only his third start for Richard Childress Racing since replacing the late Dale Earnhardt, had just beaten Jeff Gordon to the checkered flag by inches for his first career Winston Cup victory. It was eerily similar to Earnhardt's narrow victory over Bobby Labonte a year before.

Kevin Harvick is leading the way for the next NASCAR generation.

After making a victory lap and accepting congratulations from many other competitors, Harvick pulled his car into Victory Lane and encountered Myers, a longtime employee of the team that won six championships with Earnhardt.

Myers, a large man who rarely smiles and often has a menacing look on his face, was sobbing uncontrollably.

"When I saw a guy like Chocolate Myers just crying his eyes out, it made me realize how important winning that race was," Harvick said. "For Chocolate and all of the guys that knew Dale and were friends with him, I guess it meant a lot."

It meant a lot for Harvick, too. Already the center of attention for taking the ride, the victory made him a star. A victory at Chicago later in the season helped him win Winston Cup Rookie of the Year, and he also won the NASCAR Busch Series title.

So far, 2002 hasn't been as kind. Harvick returns to Atlanta for Sunday's MBNA America 500 28th in points. He was running second in the Daytona 500 until he and Gordon helped trigger an 18-car pileup, and Harvick wasn't a factor in the last two races at Rockingham, N.C., and Las Vegas.

"We're looking forward to coming back to Atlanta," Childress said. "Kevin runs extremely well there, and we've got a lot of good memories there. I can't think of a better place for us to be going to get things turned around."

It would be hard to top last year's finish. Harvick fought his way through a bumper-to-bumper, five-car battle in the final 10 laps, taking the lead for good with a three-wide pass of Jerry Nadeau and Dale Jarrett.

Then Harvick had to hold off Gordon, who dipped low in the final turn and pulled abreast of Harvick as they approached the finish line. The official margin of victory was .006 seconds -- about the length of Harvick's bumper.

"Anytime you beat Jeff Gordon, you've done something," Harvick said. "That made our first win extra special."

Although he lost, Gordon has similar feelings about the finish, which came less than a month after Earnhardt's death.

"I think it was exciting," he said. "It was great for the sport, great for that team, certainly great for Kevin. He deserved it, he made great moves, he's very talented and he won the race."

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