Harvick is forgotten man in Chase

BY foxsports • October 5, 2011

Three races into NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff run, the storylines and championship predictions are as fast and furious as Sunday’s final restart at Dover International Speedway. Everyone’s looking for a trophy bandwagon to jump on.

Jimmie Johnson? The five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champ is always a favorite; the more dramatic his journey in the standings, the more attention he gets.

Tony Stewart? The feisty throwback and media not-so-darling wins his first races of the year after the Chase starts and suddenly maybe he’s the guy to beat for the 2011 title -- despite his own pessimism.

Carl Edwards? Always ready with the aw-shucks smile and perfect sound bite; he hasn’t won a race since March, but he led the points standings for most of the regular season and is back on top of the leaderboard now.

But for all that flash and hype those other guys are getting, it’s Kevin Harvick who’s bringing some serious substance.

What’s a guy gotta do to get a little championship buzz?

Harvick and Edwards are mathematically tied atop the standings – nine points over Stewart and Kurt Busch – but technically the lead is Harvick’s courtesy of his four wins compared to Edwards’ one this season.

Harvick hasn’t been ranked lower than fifth in the standings since the first week of April and his stats go toe-to-toe with Edwards, Johnson or Stewart in most categories. He wins in wins.

“I don’t think you’re going to see anybody come in here and dominate like you have before as far as just taking off and running away,’’ Harvick said following a 10th-place finish in Sunday’s race. “You’re going to be consistent and solid and it’s just a matter of keeping yourself in it until you get to the last couple of races ...

“You just have to take it one week at a time and I would much rather (be) on top of the points three weeks in than sitting 12th. So we’ll just keep at it.’’

The straight-talking Californian with a mischievous grin has never been more prepared or poised to take home NASCAR’s big haul.

Under the old, full-season points system, he would have handily ended fellow Californian Johnson’s dizzying title run last year by a whopping 285 points. In terms of lowest average finish, Harvick "won" both the regular 2010 season and the Chase as well, with a 5.8 average finish in the final 10 races (compared to Johnson’s 6.2). Instead, under last year’s system, he finished a valiant third place – 41 points behind Johnson and two behind Denny Hamlin, both of whom brought more bonus points than Harvick to the Chase and who won more races during both the regular season and Chase.

“For me, and this is just putting it into perspective, when I got done with the season last year, I got a text from (New York Yankees Manager) Joe Girardi,’’ Harvick said earlier this year. “He says, ‘Hey man, great year, good job; I don’t understand how you can have the best year and not win (the championship). I don’t understand your points system.’’’

Harvick, bolstered by a newly revised NASCAR points system, isn't going to let that happen again this year. Nobody’s won more races (four) this season and the bonus points for his three regular-season victories in the No. 29 Budweiser Chevy are the difference right now in his place atop the championship.

In the weeks leading up to the season-opening Daytona 500, Harvick’s team owner, the legendary Richard Childress, predicted that someone – Harvick – was going to end Johnson’s championship streak this November.

Harvick smiles and bristles a bit when reminded of his boss’s comments, but clearly he appreciates the dose of confidence.

“Well, sometimes he gets excited,’’ Harvick said after his runner-up finish in the Chase-opener at New Hampshire.

“I don’t know if that was the absolute right thing to say in public but I think all in all, Richard is very confident in us as drivers and feels like he spends the money and does the things to be competitive for a championship. He just wants to win.’’

Which is something the two have in common.

In 2006, Harvick came as close as anyone to taking championships in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series, winning the Nationwide trophy and finishing fourth in the Cup standings with five wins.

It’s hard to imagine someone with Harvick’s resume could actually fly under the championship radar but his steady, blue-collar approach has served him well. He’s consistent, but able to seize opportunity.

He isn’t prone to mistakes. ... speeding on pit road or poor restarts that cost a couple of his more celebrated rivals, Edwards and Johnson on Sunday.

And for someone whose famous temper once got as much attention as his driving, the unshakable Harvick seems more even-keeled, almost easy-going.

“When you have people around you that are doing their job and doing it well and dotting the ‘I’s and crossing the ‘T’s and doing everything that comes with it, I can be a lot calmer,’’ Harvick said.

And it’s paying off.

“I think anything you can do that is better than everyone else at this point is a good thing,’’ Harvick said. “For us it’s kind of like, us against ourselves. Obviously it’s a good start.’’

For a guy nicknamed “The Closer.”

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