- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 15, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - Kevin Harvick spent the last decade avoiding dealing with Dale Earnhardt’s death.

He was closed off to teammates. He was detached from fans. He was unwilling to broach the delicate subject with just about anyone.

Until recently.

With the anniversary of Earnhardt’s fatal crash looming at Daytona International Speedway, Harvick opened up to teammates during a Richard Childress Racing dinner earlier this month. With tears in his eyes and 10 years of emotion pouring from his heart, Harvick caught everyone by surprise.

And this much was clear: Harvick finally has embraced Earnhardt’s legacy.

“It’s hard to be in the shadow of somebody,” teammate Jeff Burton said. “There’s no way that Kevin Harvick steps into that car after the tragedy without being in his shadow. You know, that’s hard. I don’t want to speak for Kevin, but it takes a little while to separate yourself from that.”

It took years.

Harvick was 25 when Earnhardt died on Feb. 18, 2001, in a final-lap wreck during the Daytona 500. At the time, Harvick was a budding star in NASCAR’s second-tier series. He envisioned making the jump to the Sprint Cup Series, but never could have imagined it happening the way it did.

Crew chief Kevin Hamlin summoned Harvick to Richard Childress’ office in the middle of night and asked him to do the unthinkable _ replace Earnhardt.

Harvick was woefully unprepared.

“Instantly, it’s like everybody knows your name, everybody knows what you’re doing, so you start from the wrong end of the spectrum and you don’t have time,” Harvick said. “A lot of times when you come into something new you have time to learn. You have time to learn what you’re supposed to say, when you’re supposed to do things, how you’re supposed to do it.

“You start off with the biggest press conference that you’ll ever have in your whole career and you have more fans than you’ll ever have and you don’t know how to manage your time, you don’t know how to manage your money, you don’t know what to say and all of a sudden you have all that stuff at once. So instantly I just put up my defense and it was easier just not to talk about it.”

He didn’t.

Instead, Harvick shut down. He figured that was the easiest way to cope with everything going on around him _ questions about Earnhardt’s death and tributes at every track.

“Instantly you had everything that you wanted, but you didn’t have to do anything for it,” Harvick said. “It just didn’t all make sense to me.”

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