By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
The start of the 2001 season started off with a dark cloud hanging over the sport following the death of Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500, but as the series rolled into Atlanta, little did they know that the healing would start just 500 miles later.
Kevin Harvick, who had taken over the seat left vacant by Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing following his passing, was making his third start of his Cup Series career in the renumbered white No. 29 car and it did not take long for Harvick to take the car to the front of the field from the start of the race.
Dale Jarrett started on pole, but by lap 7, Harvick was in the lead, having moved to the front after a restart following the first caution. Following Harvick would be Jeff Gordon, providing a little foreshadowing on what would transpire late in the race.
After getting past Harvick on lap 19, Gordon would set sail in the lead, only giving it up during the course of green flag pit stops. Gordon looked to be the man to beat throughout the first half of the race, leading 118 of the first 142 laps, but at that point in the race a new and unlikely contender emerged.
Dave Blaney, driving the No. 93 for Bill Davis Racing, took over the lead on lap 143 and did not give up the lead for more than a handful of laps, leading 70 of the next 75 laps. However, Blaney’s run up front came to an end with 108 laps remaining, thanks to a loose rear wheel, which dropped Blaney to 34th in the final running order, a heartbreaking finish for the sprint car king.
With Blaney out of the picture, Jerry Nadeau took over the lead at lap 218, which was an amazing rebound after he spun on lap 3 to bring out the first yellow of the day. Over the final 100 laps of the race, it looked as if Nadeau or pole sitter Jarrett, who swapped the lead back and forth with Nadeau, would be the drivers to beat for the remainder of the race.
With 10 laps to go, five drivers found themselves in close proximity to the leader Nadeau and second place Jarrett, with Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Gordon all within striking distance.
Harvick made his move to the front with six laps to go as Gordon followed suit into second two laps later. Earnhardt, Jr. had to hit pit road in those closing laps thanks to a flat right front tire and both Nadeau and Jarrett dropped back from the top two, leaving Harvick and Gordon to duke it out for the win.
As Harvick led the field around the 1.5 mile quad oval, Gordon stalked his every move and as the two drivers took the white flag, the intensity peaked as the two drivers were doing all they could to get to victory lane. Heading into Turn 3 on the final lap, Harvick went high, leaving the bottom of the track open for Gordon.
As the two drivers entered the front straightaway dogleg, Harvick and Gordon were side by side as the squeezed to the high side of the lapped machine of Brett Bodine, but Gordon was able to maintain his momentum and as the two cars crossed the finish line, Harvick was able to keep the nose of his car just out in front of Gordon, beating him to the line by .006 seconds.
FOX Sports announcers Darrell Waltrip, Mike Joy, and Larry McReynolds had the call from the broadcast booth and this is how they called the finish of the race:
Waltrip: Alright, I believe Jeff’s gonna try to get him on the low side. If the slow car’s not gonna be in the way.
Joy: Here comes Gordon to the bottom!
Waltrip: Oh, slow car…slow car…slow car is gonna be in the way.
McReynolds: He’s gonna get him though, he’s GONNA GET HIM!
Joy: Gordon got loose! IT’S HARVICK!
Waltrip: Harvick by inches!
After crossing the finish line to take the checkers, Harvick’s crew jumped off the wall in celebration and tears as Harvick did a John Force style burnout down the front straightaway and then drove a “Polish Victory Lap” while holding three fingers out of his car window in salute to Earnhardt. Once Harvick made it back to pit road, he was greeted by nearly every pit crew member from almost every team, just as Earnhardt was greeted following his Daytona 500 win in 1998.
The win by Harvick was not only his first in the Cup Series, but it was a mirror image of what Earnhardt had pulled off against Bobby Labonte just one year prior as he beat Labonte in a photo finish as well.
“We all knew this was going to be pretty difficult on all of us. None of us expected it this soon, with the unfortunate circumstances. All I have to say is, this one’s for Dale,” Harvick said in victory lane. “This Goodwrench Chevrolet was good all day and we just bided our time and I think someone was watching over us.”