published Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Fans turn out early to meet NASCAR star Harvick (with video)

Brigitte Schultz, left, of Flinstone, Ga., has Kevin Harvick autograph her NASCAR memorabilia during the grand opening of Ollie's Bargain Outlet in the Brainerd Village shopping complex early Wednesday morning.
Brigitte Schultz, left, of Flinstone, Ga., has Kevin Harvick autograph her NASCAR memorabilia during the grand opening of Ollie's Bargain Outlet in the Brainerd Village shopping complex early Wednesday morning.
Photo by Dan Henry.
NASCAR star Kevin Harvick at Ollie's Bargain Outlet
NASCAR racing star Kevin Harvick was at Ollie's Bargain Outlet to meet fans and sign autographs for the store's grand opening celebration on Wednesday.
  • photo
    Fans line up to get an autograph from NASCAR's Kevin Harvick during the grand opening of Ollie's Bargain Outlet in the Brainerd Village shopping complex early Wednesday morning.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Brigitte Schultz and her husband got to Brainerd Village from Flintstone, Ga., at about 5 a.m. Wednesday to make sure she could meet her favorite NASCAR driver at the new Ollie's Bargain Outlet.

Kevin Harvick arrived about five and a half hours later to greet fans and sign autographs in helping open another store for one of the sponsors of his No. 29 Sprint Cup race team. He was a little late, delayed by weather in reaching the Chattanooga airport from his home near Charlotte, N.C.

Today he's going to Daytona Beach, Fla., to begin the 2013 season. The nonpoints Sprint Unlimited race, formerly the Budweiser Shootout, is Saturday night, and the teams get to practice twice Friday evening in their new Gen-6 cars.

Tickets for autographs and pictures made with Harvick started being distributed at 7:30 a.m., and Schultz got the first one. Her husband, also named Kevin, was No. 2 in line. He's a Jeff Gordon fan but couldn't let his wife come alone so early in the morning.

"I've had to listen to this for two days," he said with a smile. "Actually, it started about three weeks ago when she first found out Harvick was coming here."

Said his wife: "I first saw it in the Chattanooga paper, in [the Ollie's] ad. But then I checked the website. I had to make sure he was going to be at this store on this day at this time."

Harvick outdueled Gordon at Atlanta Motor Speedway 12 years ago for an emotional win right after he moved up to the Cup Series to replace the late Dale Earnhardt for Richard Childress Racing.

That was when Brigitte Schultz adopted Harvick as her favorite. Same for Daniel Largent, who left his Knoxville home at 4 a.m. Wednesday to drive to Chattanooga.

Unlike Schultz, Largent had seen Harvick in person several times, including at last year's fan club gathering at Charlotte.

"You've got to support your drivers," Largent said. In turn, he noted, "Harvick does a whole lot more for his fan clubs than most other drivers."

Brigitte Schultz has been to NASCAR races and has autographs from a number of drivers -- including Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Richard Petty and Harry Gant -- but had not met Harvick until Wednesday. She was wearing his number, at least for now: 29.

Harvick is in his last year with Childress. He will be driving for Tony Stewart's Stewart-Haas team in 2014.

Harvick said there always are distractions of some sort, and he thinks he and Childress haven gotten past the emotions of his decision to leave and are focused on having as good a farewell year as possible. He won one Cup race last year, the next-to-last one at Phoenix, and finished eighth in the points, "which is not what we're looking for."

"Our goals are the same as any other year. We want to go out and win races," the 37-year-old driver said. "Hopefully we'll run well at the beginning of the season and then make the Chase and be there at the end."

The immediate objective is to get a feel for the new competition Chevrolet.

"There's a lot of unknowns with the car," Harvick said, "and I think everybody's anxious to get their cars in race condition and put everybody on the track at the same time and get a real understanding of where we are."

He said the car "looks great" and is "fast" -- and "the manufacturers are really happy. ... But all the testing has been in cold temperatures."

A perennial top contender with third-place finishes in the Cup standings in 2010 and '11, Harvick has won titles in the Nationwide Series and as an owner with his wife in the truck series. And he and DeLana, whom he married the week before his first Cup win, welcomed their first child, a son, last July.

Growing up in Bakersfield, Calif., Harvick became an avid San Francisco 49ers fan. He attended this year's Super Bowl when they almost pulled off a big comeback victory. But now his season is kicking off.

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