For the third-straight season in Winston Cup racing, at least one rookie is trying to mess up the grading curve for the rest of his class. In 1999 it was Tony Stewart. Last season, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both won races in their first seasons.
This year it's Kevin Harvick, a late-comer to the group of six rookie drivers, who's stealing the headlines from Kurt Busch, Ron Hornaday, Jason Leffler, Casey Atwood and Andy Houston.
Harvick was scheduled to be in the 2002 rookie class after making seven developmental starts this season. But those plans changed after Feb. 18, when Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash in the Daytona 500.
Team owner Richard Childress turned to Harvick, who is also continuing to compete full time in a Childress-owned Grand National car this season, to take the wheel for Earnhardt's former team.
"It's probably the most different circumstances you could ever have to get in a race car," says Harvick, who finished 14th in his first start at Rockingham in the newly christened No. 29 Chevrolet. "We just take the task at hand each week and do the best that we can. I think the results have been pretty phenomenal, and I think that's a big credit to our race team, how hard they've worked and what we've got at (Richard Childress Racing)."
Harvick scored a thrilling down-to-the-wire victory over Jeff Gordon and the rest of the field in his third start at Atlanta Motor Speedway in one of the signature moments of the season's first 16 races. He's had five other top-10 finishes, including a second in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.
Most remarkably, Harvick is ninth in the Winston Cup standings despite having made one fewer start than anyone else in the top 28.
"I've got a lot of people helping me get through the situations that I don't understand and that I haven't been through, and I think that's helped more than anything," says Harvick, who also is leading the Grand National standings. "Every week, I'm learning a little bit more about different people and things and situations, and I think when you stop learning in this sport is when you're going to get beat up. I just have to keep a level head about everything and remember that this is my first year in Winston Cup. I just have to keep listening."
Harvick does have the advantage of being with a veteran team, but that doesn't mean the job he's doing hasn't been impressive.
"I hope everybody understands what he's doing and the accomplishments he's had and the mark he's made," Dale Jarrett said of the 25-year-old Californian. "He's a remarkable young man and a tremendous talent.
"... There are very few people, if anybody, who could take on what he has taken on, especially at the young age he is, and do the job he has done."
Harvick has been the top-finishing rookie eight times this season, twice as often as Busch, who is second in the rookie standings with 167 points to Harvick's 192.
Busch, just 22, has had some highlights of his own this year, finishing third at Talladega and fourth at Texas in the No. 97 Fords owned by Roush Racing. He's 23rd in the points race, and that standing has helped him make every race Busch has used four provisional starting spots.
"It has been a bunch of highs and a bunch of lows," Busch says. "That's what we have to work on and build, the consistency. We've met our goals this far we want to qualify in the top 25 most of the time, finish in the top 25 and end up in the top 25 in points. We just need to step it up a little bit to keep up with that 29 car."
Hornaday has also managed to make every race so far, but keeping that up won't be easy over the next seven races because the No. 14 Pontiac owned by A.J. Foyt won't be eligible for another provisional until the Bristol race in late August.
"We've been running well, we just haven't had the finishes," says Hornaday, whose best finish was a ninth at Las Vegas. "We've been going through the struggles: new tire, different bodies and different fabricators in there trying different things. ... We can't stop and think what would have happened with the crashes we've had and the alternator belt falling off, oil leaks, stuff like that."
Hornaday is a 43-year-old Cup rookie who has years of experience in other racing series.
Atwood is only 20, but even though he's the youngest of the group he's been racing a while, too. Atwood won 12 late-model short-track feature races before his 16th birthday.
"Starting a new team with a rookie driver has been hard. We've had some pretty good runs; we just haven't been able to capitalize on them," says Atwood, who's driving the No. 19 Dodges owned by Ray Evernham.
Atwood has missed just one race, Atlanta, and got his best finish at Richmond, where he was 12th.
He's 34th in points, two spots ahead of Leffler, who's driving the No. 01 Dodges owned by Chip Ganassi.
"We start off slow at the beginning of the race and we certainly improve throughout the race," Leffler says. "The thing that I don't do very well is qualify. I think our best qualifying run has been 20th (at Rockingham). That's probably the No. 1 area that we need to improve on."
Leffler didn't qualify well enough to make the races at Bristol, Martinsville or Sears Point.
Fellow rookie Houston, driving the No. 96 Fords owned by Cal Wells, has had an even rougher time, missing six of the first 16 races, including the last three in a row.