Talladega: Harvick reaches a milestone of sorts at speedway

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TALLADEGA — At a speedway where the name Earnhardt is revered, and where the No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet will lead the pace lap for Sunday’s 1000bulbs.com 500, it is only appropriate that Kevin Harvick is reaching a milestone.

This will be the 677th race of Harvick’s NASCAR Monster Energy Cup career.

Dale Earnhardt Sr., raced 676 times at NASCAR’s top level.

As NASCAR historians know, Harvick’s first start was at Rockingham on Feb. 26, 2001, the weekend after Earnhardt’s fatal crash in Daytona. Earnhardt’s total came across a span of 27 seasons, while Harvick is in his 19th; only Kurt Busch (678) has more starts among active drivers.

“In the beginning it was really hard to understand the magnitude of the circumstances the first couple years,” Harvick said. “As you got into the second year and really started to understand what happened the year before. It was already done. … That first particular year we raced so much and the team protected me from so many things because we were on the road so much and didn’t have to really understand the magnitude of it, but there was no hiding from it over an off season and the next year as the expectations changed.”

Harvick had the second-fastest time in the two practice sessions on Friday, a relatively calm eve before today’s hectic schedule at Talladega Superspeedway: Qualifying for the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series at 9:35 a.m., followed by the Sugarlands Shine 250 truck race at 12:30. Qualifying for Sunday’s Cup race will be at 3:35 p.m.

Next season, Harvick will celebrate the 20th anniversary of his first win, a fact that “should make a lot of us standing here feel old,” Harvick said.

He was a hot prospect in the Richard Childress Racing pipeline and found himself at age 25 behind the wheel of the most high-profile car in NASCAR, a week after the sport’s most resounding disaster.

Harvick remains a hot prospect in terms of winning a second NASCAR title, something that might make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer upon retirement. Which, by the way, is not imminent. He still is “enthused” to be at the race track each week, partly because of the joy his kids Keelan and Piper have at the track.

“We’ve been in two scenarios that have been good for me professionally and personally,” Harvick said, referring to his first 13 years at RCR and the years since with Stewart-Haas, “and I consider myself a little bit of a late bloomer with the situation at Stewart-Haas and the championship and the enthusiasm that goes towards continuing to chase after a full season of racing. … We’re in a good spot.”

That’s a good spot figuratively — and literally. Harvick is currently fourth in the standings, behind Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, and seems in a comfortable position to advance to the Round of 8 in the NASCAR playoffs. This is the middle in a three-race tier, with the cutoff race coming next week at Kansas.

Saturday's Sugarlands Shine race is the first in the second tier of that series’ playoffs, with Brett Moffitt, Austin Hill, Ross Chastain, Stewart Friesen, Matt Crafton and Tyler Ankrum the remaining drivers eligible for the title, a group that is separated by only 29 points.