FLORENCE, S.C. (AP) - Kevin Harvick can't stop smiling these days. And it's not just because he's already won two Sprint Cup races this season.
A different routine, a more mature outlook, a top-notch team and a new sponsor have the racer sarcastically nicknamed, ``Happy,'' well, happy.
``I don't know about nicer,'' Harvick said with a grin.
While he attributes part of his new outlook to a good relationship with Budweiser, which sponsors his race team for much of the season, Harvick also has gradually emerged from the huge shadow of the driver he replaced at Richard Childress Racing, the late Dale Earnhardt.
Harvick is now comfortable in his own skin, as evidenced when a fan recently asked if, after 10 years with RCR, he's now ``The Intimidator,'' as Earnhardt was known.
``I don't think so. I just try to be myself,'' he said. ``I know the situation with the car and the way everything is, but I feel like we've been able to establish our own identity and do things in our own way.''
That hasn't always easy for Harvick. He was thrown into an impossible situation a decade ago, a 25-year-old rookie brought on by Childress to fill Earnhardt's seat after the NASCAR star died at the 2001 Daytona 500.
``I look back at it now and think, 'Man, what a disaster,''' Harvick told invited guests at the luncheon last week at Crown Beverages Inc.
Earnhardt's death left a huge void and his legion of grieving fans expected Harvick to be every bit as ornery, charming and hard-charging as their deceased hero.
Darlington Raceway President Chris Browning was in charge at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, N.C., when Harvick arrived for his first Sprint Cup race the week after Earnhardt's death.
``I was thinking, 'Man, this kid's got a lot on him,''' Browning said.
Harvick was up to the task. He drove like a madman that season, eating up the opportunity. He edged out Jeff Gordon at Atlanta for his first win and took the checkered flag at Chicagoland later that year, eventually finishing ninth in the series standings.
But along with the fame, came a loss of anonymity that Harvick wasn't sure how to handle. ``All of a sudden, I was like, 'Wow.' Everybody knew who you were. They knew where you lived. You didn't have any privacy,'' Harvick said. ``A lot of things changed.''
Harvick gradually learned to adjust to life in the NASCAR spotlight as he grew into a star for RCR. Again, the transition wasn't always easy.
Harvick gave as many hours as possible to racing. When he wasn't in the seat, he worried about how to go faster. Harvick acknowledged that white-hot focus led to some testy sessions with the media that earned him the ``Happy'' nickname.
He took time, he says, to change that. ``I think for me, I had more interaction with the media last year than probably in years past,'' he said. ``I think it's been easier for people to see who I was outside of the guy on the racetrack.''
The Budweiser sponsorship fits that makeover and gives him a chance to show off his lighter side. Harvick followed his question-and-answer session at the lunch with a tour of the local wholesaler and helped deliver beer to an area Wal-Mart, surprising workers and shoppers on a Wednesday afternoon.
Budweiser has sponsored its share of high-profile drivers, none more prominent than Dale Earnhardt Jr. Harvick, however, brings an accessibility that local distributors enjoy, taking pictures with workers and signing posters during the visit.
``Dale's a little more untouchable. There are a lot of people around him,'' said Schipp Johnston, Crown Beverages' CEO. ``You see Kevin, he's ready to get on a truck and deliver. I would've never seen that with any other driver.''
Harvick showed off his playful side at the Wal-Mart, wheeling cases of beer into the back storage area.
``Hi, Diane,'' Harvick said to the camera-shy woman receiving the order. ``Here you go.''
Customers stopped and stared as the Sprint Cup star pushed the dolly out of the back room and down the aisle. ``Get wide, Kevin,'' someone shouted as he turned into the beer case.
Harvick began unloading cases and swapping out older beer for the just-delivered brew. Wal-Mart workers, other beverage retail representatives and onlookers filled the aisle to watch the NASCAR standout fill the display. Harvick continued stacking until every open space was filled.
``Remember, everything on this side is contaminated,'' Harvick joked, pointing to the displays for the competing brands.
With his wins at California and Martinsville and NASCAR's new points system, Harvick has just about locked up a spot in the series' end-of-season championship chase. This season, NASCAR will give two wild-card spots to racers with the most wins who aren't already among the top 10 qualifiers.
That gives him the chance, he says, to try things at playoff tracks the first time around that might help at the end of the year.
Harvick hasn't given up his competitive fire. He thinks he's learned how best to channel it.
``It is amazing,'' said Browning, Darlington's president. ``He has come a very, very long way.''

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