Harvick learns how to beat Johnson

Listen up, kids: Studying can lead to big rewards.

Look no further than Kevin Harvick for proof of that.

Harvick has long been a student of the sport. He studies the history to learn about the men who paved his path in NASCAR. He reviews his races to see how he can do a little more on his return trip to a specific track. One suspects he watches the other drivers as well, learning from their mistakes as much as from his own.

Now the question is, will those lessons learned make him the champion this year? If you think that’s a reach, look no further than what Harvick taught everyone Sunday in Fontana, Calif.

Harvick, a native of nearby Bakersfield, clearly coveted a win at Auto Club Speedway. Sunday, he got just that – by remembering what happened a year ago and working patiently and diligently to avoid a similar mistake this time. He also studied what happened in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at the same track, a race in which Kyle Busch stayed out on the final pit stop and took the victory.

Primarily, though, he recalled the Sprint Cup race here in 2010. A year ago in California, Harvick made a late-race run at future champion Jimmie Johnson. He closed to within 0.311 seconds with less than five laps to go. Then, in the closing laps, he brushed the wall, knocked in his right-front fender and finished second.

Harvick wasn’t going to let that happen again. So he took the lesson of last year and combined it with things he’d learned about the car and track over the years and used it to work his way past Johnson and take the lead on the final lap.

“I knew I had a little left in the tank on the last restart,” he said. “I didn’t want the fenders to be knocked in and not have a chance. There were several times where I was probably a little too conservative, but with the high line up there, you don’t have much room for air.

“I knew if I was going to hit the wall today, it wasn’t going to be till Turn 4 coming to the checkered. It was tight, but it was the right time to go. We were able to keep pace. I really had a good run coming off of Turn 2, and he rolled up in front of me, so I just laid on the back bumper all the way down the back straightaway, gave him a couple seconds to think about what was going to happen going into Turn 3.”

And then he nudged Johnson. He just wanted the high lane and room to run. Ironically, Johnson couldn’t have held him off up there anyway – his car just didn’t handle well in the outer lane of the track.

“I knew what I was going to do,” Harvick said. “I was hoping he would just roll through the middle of the racetrack or on the bottom or something. So it all worked out.”

Johnson knew, too. He braced for it, but still couldn’t maintain the lead.

“I don’t think he got into me all that hard,” Johnson said. “I actually put my head back against the headrest and thought it was going to be a lot harder than what it was.

“He did it well. He did his job. I didn’t do mine holding him off. That was racing. That’s the cool thing about our cars, especially the way they’re designed now. You can lean on each other at 190 (mph) and still make it back.”

Johnson just couldn’t make it back into position to contend with Harvick.

In 17 starts at the track, Harvick had completed 98.3 percent of the laps. He’s led 59 of those. But he didn’t have that win. Now, thanks to his patience, he does.

Team owner Richard Childress is learning as well this year. He’s dealt with the engine problems that marked some of the team’s early efforts this year and making sure those are taken care of as well.

“Trust me, I told Kevin … ‘If I have to worry about it, you guys have to worry about it.’ I told them at the driver’s meeting I was concerned," Childress said. "I was more worried about that than how the cars were going to run. I knew the cars would run real well.

“We’re running what we had last year. There’s some changes. We think we know what it is.”

Despite their 10 seasons together, Harvick and Childress recognize the value in trying to continually get to know more about their sport, their team and improvements that can be made.

Still, he’s not out to reinvent the wheel, so to speak.

Harvick isn’t trying to remake his driving style. He seems content with his penchant for leading late in the races he wins instead of dominating the majority of the laps. After all, as everyone witnessed Sunday, the latter isn’t necessarily the path to victory.

“I wish we could go out there and wear them out one day and not have to worry about waiting till the last lap,” Harvick said. “(It) does seem we kind of wait till the end to really get going. I think, you know, for me, I always was taught to race, just go fast enough to put yourself in position to be around at the end and make sure your car still has all the fenders and tires and everything still underneath it.

“When it’s time to go, you have a little something left, your car is hopefully fresher than the guys around you. Probably somewhat of a bad habit that I have, but I guess it works out.”

Sunday, all his homework paid off.

Harvick showed that his study of last year’s race had paid off. After celebrating in Victory Lane, he detailed the ways in which that helped net him a win Sunday.

“I keep going back to last year,” he said. “Last year taught me a lot about what patience and the things I needed to do to beat a guy that doesn’t make mistakes. In order to do that, you can’t make mistakes yourself.

“This race one year ago is what helped us win today, by being patient, not taking yourself out of the race, having something there at the end until it was time to go.”

Sunday, as he moved past Johnson to take the win late, Harvick showed he certainly has something for the five-time defending series champion.

Will that same diligence and study habit net him the 2011 title?

“We feel as a team we can race right with ’em, but so does everybody else,” he said. “There’s a lot of other guys that think the same thing, but nobody’s beat them in five years.

“We’ve just got to keep chipping away at it.”