Kevin Harvick left an indelible impression on NASCAR fans last season. It's just that he looked more like a prizefighter than a race driver.
Last September at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, Harvick stood on the window frame of his No. 29 Chevrolet, his eyes burning, his 5-foot-10, 175-pound body taut, ready to charge, and unprintable words flying from his mouth. He was a vision of fury.
The target of his outrage was fellow driver Ricky Rudd, who had bumped him into the wall while Harvick was running second and cost him any chance of winning the race.
"The only thing I regret about that was [cursing] on television," Harvick said. "That was bad."
The anger over being bumped, that was pure passion. It's what makes Harvick a contender this season and what has caused some trouble in the past.
The big question now: Can he harness his emotions?
His car owner, Richard Childress, seems confident he can.
"Kevin has matured tremendously," Childress said. "As you do things, you make mistakes. You learn as you go. That's how Dale Earnhardt developed, too. And Dale Earnhardt knew a race car. He knew the feel. He worked on them. Kevin has done the same thing."
Today, Harvick will compete in a segment of the Twin 125-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway. The two races will finalize the starting lineup for Sunday's Daytona 500.
Going into these races, only the front row has been determined for the 500. Ford drivers Greg Biffle and Elliott Sadler won the front-row starting spots with qualifying speeds of 188.387 mph and 188.355 mph, respectively.
The next 28 positions will come from today's results, with 14 cars qualifying from each race. Eight more cars will be entered based on their qualifying speeds last Sunday, and the final five cars in the 43-car field will be filled based on last year's car-owner points.
Harvick's Chevrolet ran 187.602 and was 10th fastest during qualifying. Therefore, he should make the race no matter what happens today.
And Harvick cannot wait to get this season started. He and Childress say this is going to be their season.
"Kevin is very intense," Childress said. "I think he is made for the new points system [which cuts the total drivers to a final 10 to compete for the championship]. I think if we can get into that final 10-race segment, we can be very good."
Childress said he has always thought Harvick would evolve into a champion. He and Earnhardt, the late seven-time Winston Cup champion, picked the then-25-year-old as the driver they wanted to groom to one day step into Earnhardt's famed No. 3 Chevrolet.
Earnhardt loved Harvick's passion and Childress loved his take-no-prisoners driving style, which was very much like Earnhardt's.
Those similarities caused Harvick trouble during his sophomore season and again early last year, when some competitors and fans said he was trying to be too much like Earnhardt, without the experience and results to back it up.
Though Harvick was involved in incidents with other drivers - including his teammate, Robby Gordon - Childress wasn't one of the critics.
"I like my drivers to have some vinegar in them," Childress said last month as he was directing the preparation of his cars for Sunday's race. "I want them to want it as bad as I do."
Harvick can deliver on that.
"I've got some fire in me," he said. "But all the things that went on the last couple years have changed me. I learned a lot from all the incidents. I don't care anymore if everyone is happy with me. As long as Richard, DeLana [his wife] and my sponsors are happy, that's all I care about.
"In 2001, I'd read every Web site and article. Now, write what you want. I don't care."
When Earnhardt was killed here in 2001, Childress quickly changed the number on his Chevrolet to 29 and moved Harvick, who was driving for him in the Busch Series, into the car. Childress continues to be confident he has the right man at the steering wheel.
"The year Dale died, we still did well," Childress said. "The plans were already laid for 2001, and we finished ninth in points with Kevin. But as a corporation, we were blown away. The aftermath set in in 2002. We had to regroup. And we did and last year we started to produce.
"Kevin knows how to win, and we feel we're ready. ... Kevin needs to be Kevin. But when he steps over the line, we talk about it."
Harvick, 28, seems to have found his footing after three years on the job.
"Dale and Richard had taken this team and made many huge strides," Harvick said. "Now, I've got guys around me, like Todd [Berrier, his crew chief], who I've built something with. Together, we're working to rebuild what was here.
"It was hard to figure out where we needed to be at first, but I think we've finally gotten it right."
NOTES: Crownsville driver Kelly Sutton failed to qualify for tomorrow night's NASCAR Florida Dodge Dealers 250, missing the field by less than four-tenths of a second.
Sutton's crew chief, Teddy Brown, voiced the team's disappointment.
"We lost 2.5 to 3/10ths of a second between testing and coming here," Brown said after Sutton ran 178.416 mph. "Kelly said it drove fine. It just didn't run. That's the way it is at Daytona. All the little bugs come out."
The team will test in two weeks in Atlanta for the next race.
Terry Cook claimed the pole with a fast lap of 183.643 mph on the 2 1/2 -mile tri-oval. With him on the front row will be Chase Montgomery, who ran 183.113. Defending series champion Travis Kyapil had the third-best qualifying time at 182.830.
Site: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.
When: Sunday, noon
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Pole winner: Greg Biffle
Last year's winner: Michael Waltrip
Kevin Harvick file
Hometown: Bakersfield, Calif.
Car: No. 29 Chevrolet
Owner: Richard Childress
Last season: Finished fifth in points standings; won one race
2003 Daytona result: Fourth