Validation day

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - During the weeks leading up to the Daytona 500, Richard Childress kept telling his race team he had a feeling they were going to win NASCAR's biggest event.

Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick (center) celebrates with car owner Richard Childress (left) in Victory Lane after vaulting from seventh in a two-lap overtime sprint in NASCAR's biggest race.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick (center) celebrates with car owner Richard Childress (left) in Victory Lane after vaulting from seventh in a two-lap overtime sprint in NASCAR's biggest race.

"We had a luncheon for our 400 employees about four weeks ago and I told them I just had a gut feeling we were going to win it," Childress said Monday.

On Friday, when Kevin Harvick was downcast after a difficult practice session, telling Childress he thought he had "a 10th- or 15th-place car," Childress replied: "You can win it."

It was an infectious idea Harvick took to heart.

After struggling through much of Sunday's race, Harvick found himself in seventh when a crash brought out a red flag on lap 196 of what was scheduled to be a 200-lap event. As Harvick sat in his No. 29 Chevrolet, he told his team over the radio, "I'm gonna win this thing."

The race went to a two-lap overtime sprint. Harvick was still sixth, locked in a huge, scary pack of cars, after the first heart-thumping lap around the 2.5-mile oval. But, with drafting help from Matt Kenseth and Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton, Harvick somehow wound up winning, beating Mark Martin by the length of a hood as cars crashed and banged behind them.

It was more than a win for Harvick and Childress, though. It was more validation of their decision midway through last season to remain together.

The 31-year-old Harvick, who stepped into the Nextel Cup ride a year early because of the death of seven-time champion and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500, came to a crossroads in 2006.

He was working on the final year of his original contract with Childress and trying to decide, in the wake of a couple of pretty bad seasons for RCR, if staying was the right way to go.

"Until the contract was signed, there was limbo," said Harvick's wife, Delana. "Richard and Kevin were always open and honest with each other about where they stood. ... But the ink wasn't even dry yet and there was a whole new mind-set of that team because they know it's for real, they know he's coming back and that they're all pulling the right direction. I think you can see that from that point to the end of last year. Things just took off."

With the renewed commitment by Harvick and Childress things turned around at RCR, with Harvick winning five races and the two drivers making the Chase for the Championship and raising expectations for this year and beyond.

Delana Harvick is proud of her husband and the distance he has come.

"It's hard to expect somebody to just come in and maintain that leadership role that really needed to carry that 29 team," she said. "Over the years, he's made a lot of mistakes, but he's human and I think he's learned from those.

"And, on the flip side, Richard really has mentored Kevin a lot."

Now he's a Daytona 500 champion.

"And I'll tell you one thing, the next time Richard Childress tells me he has a gut feeling, I'm going to believe him," Harvick said, laughing.

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