Harvick will leave an incomparable NASCAR legacy of wins, a title and an unimaginable rookie year

If Kevin Harvick had announced his retirement on Jan. 12, 2002 instead of Jan. 12, 2023, he would have already had a plenty strong-enough case for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Thankfully, he didn't then. He did now, dropping the news via social media on Thursday morning that the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season will be his last as a full-time racer.

In that video, the once-fresh-faced kid from Bakersfield, California, who once shouldered a load that no one should ever be asked to carry, was now a weathered-eyed grown man. And as he spoke the words that announced his retirement plans, he looked like someone who was excited to finally set that weight down. After all these years of chippiness, smart remarks and sarcasm, punctuated by winks, laughs and pearls of downright wisdom, the racer who was long ago ironically nicknamed Happy looked and sounded, well, happy.

All I could think of was a quote from the late Bobby Hamilton. It was at Martinsville in 2001, Harvick's 30th Cup Series start. He'd had a run-in with Hamilton, then a 12-year series veteran, that ended his day penalized by NASCAR. The rookie shrugged it off on national TV. Hamilton responded, "The problem you have here is you have a young kid with a lot of talent trying to fill Dale Earnhardt's shoes and thinks he is Dale Earnhardt, and he wouldn't make a scab on Dale Earnhardt's butt right now. He just needs a little more time."

He got that. More than two decades of it. Harvick used that word, "time," a lot during the media rounds that followed his announcement.

"From a personal side, I'm just out of time. I need things to do where I have more options with my kids," he said to Sirius XM's NASCAR channel shortly after the announcement. He spoke of daughter Piper, 5, and son Keelan, 9, who now races karts. He expressed regret that he hadn't been able to attend his son's races as much as he would have liked last year. "I've always told you that when it started affecting my kids, it was probably going to be the deciding factor, and in the end that's really what the deciding factor was."

He turned 47 last month, a milestone that was celebrated one month after the close of his 22nd season racing at NASCAR's highest level and his 13th with multiple race wins. His 60 victories are tied for 10th on the all-time wins list. Among those triumphs are three Brickyard 400s, two Coca-Cola 600s, a pair of Southern 500s, a NASCAR All-Star Race victory and one of the gutsiest last-lap dashes ever seen in the Daytona 500. Do yourself a favor and enter a web search for "Kevin Harvick's 2007 Daytona 500 Last Lap On-Board Camera."

He won the Cup Series title in 2014, to go with a pair of Busch (now Xfinity) Series championships, a NASCAR Winston West title and even an IROC championship. He ranks 10th all-time in Cup Series top-five finishes (245), fifth all-time in top-10s (430) and 11th all-time in laps led (15,901). He has finished in the top five in the final season championship standings a stunning 13 times, including eight of the past ten years.

But not even all of those years and all of those wins or even that avalanche of trophies and statistics have been enough to overshadow what he did in 2001. Certainly not for those of us who witnessed it firsthand.

On the morning of Feb. 18, 2001, the day of the Daytona 500, he was known only as the California late-model racer who had been handpicked by Richard Childress to perhaps one day slide into one of RCR's two Cup Series Chevrolets. But first, he was to continue to prove himself in the Busch Series, where he'd just won three races in his first year with Childress. He was engaged to be married to DeLana Linville, the daughter of a North Carolina short track legend. The stage was set for a very typical slow-burn ladder climb with the end goal of perhaps becoming teammate to Earnhardt, the biggest star in the sport.

By the time the sun had set that night, though, Earnhardt was dead. Five days later, in Rockingham, North Carolina, Harvick was behind the wheel of the Monte Carlo that have been prepared for The Intimidator. It was painted white instead of black and the number on the door was 29 instead of 3. For the remainder of that season, Harvick was asked to do the impossible. Not only was he expected to drive NASCAR's most famous ride, he was to do so while being thrust into the roles of grief counselor and legacy defender.

He was 25.

Somehow, he won his third race in that car, a dramatic 0.006-second photo finish over Earnhardt's last great rival, Jeff Gordon. The image of his pit crew -- Earnhardt's pit crew -- weeping as he did a reverse victory lap with three fingers extended into the air, will always be one of the single most memorable moments in the 75-year history of NASCAR.

He backed that up with a second victory at brand-new Chicagoland Speedway that summer. He finished the season ranked ninth in the standings and earning Rookie of the Year honors. All while winning five races and a championship in his Busch Series car. All the while, he feuded with veterans and banged doors with his youngsters. See: 2002 Bristol, coming off the hood of Greg Biffle's car like Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka to land on Biffle's head.

At the time, so many of us agreed with Hamilton. The kid was trying too hard to be Intimidator II, right? The strain of it all had frayed his nerves and shredded his common sense, right? There was no way he could keep that kind of intensity turned up to 11 without burning out over the course of a career, right?

We were wrong, on all accounts. Even Hamilton corrected himself years later, laughing as he said, "This seems to have worked out for him pretty well, hasn't it?"

Harvick himself spent years dodging questions and conversations about that first year. You couldn't blame him for that. Every racer wants to be remembered for what they did, not what they were forced to do in the shadow of those who came before. It is why he ultimately left Childress to drive for a fellow chip-on-his-shoulder kindred spirit in Tony Stewart, where Harvick finally won that elusive championship.

Every racer also wants to be remembered for their legacy. For Harvick, that legacy is about all of those victories, but it is also about the kid who grew into the role of a leader among his peers. Always outspoken, always pointed, and looking back, pretty much always correct. When he hangs up his helmet in November at Phoenix Raceway, where he has the most wins all time with nine, he will become one of so many among his generation to have retired in recent years. Finally ceding the garage to the youngsters whom he not so long ago had a war of words with over their failure to have truly earned the attention they were receiving as superstars of the sport.

The twist being that years ago he started a sports management business to represent athletes all over the sports world, but especially youngsters with potential. Now he will go to work hoping that his racing-obsessed son might one day be one of those athletes.

But in the end, no matter what he has done and no matter what he might do in the future, we should all take this year, Harvick's final year, and thank him for that one year so long ago. When that kid shouldered so much on all of our behalf.