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A 'fresh start' for Kevin Harvick

The timing, apparently, is coincidental. But it's perfect for Kevin Harvick.

And so there is validation of his decision to leave Richard Childress Racing after 15 seasons for a new chapter at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Thirteen years after he went from being a firebrand from Bakersfield, Calif., to the replacement for the late Dale Earnhardt, Harvick, 38, finally has the opportunity to begin fresh with his own identity. That Austin Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, will field a No. 3 Chevrolet in Sprint Cup this season -- for the first time since Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 driving one -- reinforces his belief that he is better off watching from the outside.

"I told myself I didn't really have an opinion on that stuff and what I thought didn't really matter," Harvick said of the return of the iconic digit, "but that was one of the reasons I made the choice I did. At RCR, I was never going to get out from under that big shadow that exists."

Harvick, in 2001 embarking on a his second Nationwide season (he would win his first of two titles in the series), was afforded some measure of escape from that shadow in the immediate, emotional aftermath of Earnhardt's death because his race cars were rebranded as No. 29s. Harvick used them to win 23 races -- including the 2007 Daytona 500 -- and establish himself as a NASCAR star in his own right, but in November 2012, it became public knowledge that he would leave RCR for a team co-owned by three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart and Gene Haas.

Childress had long asserted that his family number, albeit one so entwined with the Earnhardt legend, would return to Sprint Cup only with someone of his or the driver's bloodlines. Dillon, 23, has no such cover from the weight of expectations, having wielded the "3" in winning championships in the NASCAR Truck and Nationwide series.

"There's going to be a tremendous amount of pressure and expectations," Harvick said.

Though his claims of nepotism against the Dillon children -- including Ty, also the grandson of Childress and son of team vice president of competition Mike Dillon -- were a notable spasm in his final weeks with RCR, Harvick left the team on a wave of sentimentality after winning the next-to-late Cup race of the season at Phoenix and finishing third in points. He doesn't exude ill will toward the family -- he apologized for claiming he was leaving RCR in part because the Dillons were "spoiled rich kids" after being involved in a clash with Ty in an October truck race at Martinsville -- but appears relieved to be free of the situation and on a new path for the first time driving the No. 4 Chevrolet.

Harvick said he last season sought advice from Matt Kenseth, who left Roush Fenway after 13 seasons and a title in 2003 for Joe Gibbs Racing.

"I talked to him a little bit, and for me, the best thing I could do when I got done was just hit 'delete' and start with no preconceived notions," Harvick said. "I've always been good with, when I'm done with something, I'm done with it. To me that's the past, and what I do now, what they do has no effect on what I do. My goal now is to win a championship at Stewart-Haas Racing, and that's really what I came here to do and what they want to do. And Tony and I have talked about it -- that's all we want to do is win races and win championships."

Much of the process began long before Harvick was officially allowed to join his new team. Rodney Childers left Michael Waltrip Racing in August to become Harvick's crew chief and liaison with his new team as Harvick completed his tenure with RCR.

"I think the intention of telling everybody early was we wanted the emotion of it to go away over the winter and be able to get these guys a chance to put the pieces in place for everything," Harvick said. "There wasn't a sponsor dollar or anything, we started recruiting Rodney, and once we got that part done it kind of took care of itself.

"It was an interesting year [in 2013]. It was a stressful, stressful year. We were fortunate the performance was good, to keep it all going in the right direction. Definitely different from any other season I've ever been a part of."

Harvick said he had no reservations watching SHR struggle mightily as a team, especially early last season. Ryan Newman won the Brickyard 400 despite knowing he would not return this season and finished 11th in points. Rookie Danica Patrick finished 27th. Stewart missed the last 15 races of the season after he broke his leg in a sprint car accident.

Harvick, meanwhile, won four races and tied a career best in finishing third in points in his RCR farewell.

"I never really had that worry," Harvick said of making the wrong choice of teams. "I thought we went out and got all the best people. I knew what was on tap for the performance side changes and the things that were coming down the road. There's a lot of good people that have been put in place. There are a lot of the same people in the company, but from a competition standpoint there's been a lot of changes and a lot of people brought in to compete at a high level, and basically it's kind of a new feel."

Harvick joins Stewart, who is scheduled to join his teammates at Speedweeks, and newcomer Kurt Busch in shouldering high expectations this season. Stewart, for one, has high expectations.

"I think all four of us have the potential to do better than all four of us did last year. But for sure I feel like we've got three cars that can win races and make the Chase right now," Stewart said.

Harvick is ready for that expectation, expectation borne of his performance alone.

"I'm just as excited as I've ever been to get in a race car and be through last year ..." he said. "And here we are today for a fresh start."