Harvick tough to beat in closing laps
When Kevin Harvick says he’s “in it to win it,” believe him.
The No. 29 Richard Childress Racing squad proved it was the strongest team during the regular season in 2010 but ended up finishing third in the overall NASCAR Sprint Cup standings.
Now, the team is looking to close the deal in 2011.
Six races into 2011, both Harvick and the No. 29 are at the top of their game once more.
After an engine failure at Daytona International Speedway in the season opener, the team has fought back with a vengeance. Harvick has led laps in five of the six races this season and has posted an average finish of 5.8 in the past five events, including consecutive wins, at Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville Speedway.
That has allowed him to put that Daytona setback behind him and keep focusing on the future.
“Honestly, when we left Daytona, I was laughing because it had been 156 races since we had had an engine problem and it’s hard to get on anybody for one in 156 in this sport,” Harvick said. “Our engine guys do a great job at what they do, and, from where I started at RCR to where we are today, I feel like we have the best engine department. I feel like when we started, we were mediocre, mediocre on the engine side.
“It’s one of the best engine departments in the business. There’s no reason to get down on those guys because all I’m going to do is cause more harm than good. Just try to support them, and they figured it out and we’ll move forward.”
Harvick, 35, has carried that same tact throughout much of his professional life. He’s known for his aggressive driving and sometimes fiery comments, but Harvick is much calmer these days.
Many credit Harvick’s experience as a team owner with tempering his delivery. Certainly, given the immense success that Harvick is enjoying both as a driver and as an owner, life’s difficulties are easier to handle.
But even team owner Richard Childress suggested that crew chief Gil Martin deserved a medal after 100 races of working with Harvick.
“The last 10 years, we have been through a lot of ups and downs,” Martin said. “Whether we have raced together or I’ve been on another team in the same company, I think at the same point Kevin has matured a lot. And through his maturity, he’s made me mature in a lot of ways, even though I’m older.
“I’ve matured in a lot of ways at the racetracks because there are a lot of things that are much more important to me and we don’t spend a lot of time looking for the trick shock of the week or the trick setup or the hot tip car. Every week, I look at is as his office. He’s familiar with where everything is at in that thing, and we make small changes when we get to the racetrack.
“So I think that hundred mark is kind of a short story because I’ve sat and watched — and at the end, he stands up in the seat and gets the job done.”
He did that Sunday.
Yes, Harvick faced challenges throughout the Martinsville race. He started with an extremely loose car. Then, halfway through the Goody’s Fast Relief 500, teammate Paul Menard accidentally plowed into the back of his car on pit road.
Harvick acknowledged there were times when he felt “ready to slit my wrists and (the team) kept me somewhat grounded . . . and then we were able to focus on working on our car and getting back to where we needed to be”.
Certainly, Harvick continues to learn from the mistakes. He described the experience as “character building,” but the ability to battle back as a team is what distinguishes the champions from the field.
He tries to take that stance on the setbacks, to learn from the past and to listen to the advice of others.
That was clear Sunday.
As Harvick enjoyed the afterglow of his 16th career Cup win, he reflected on a lesson from his father, a racer/fireman from Bakersfield, Calif.
“My dad always told me the pay window didn't open until the checkered flag was flown, and we survived and raced off of what we won each week,” Harvick said. “So if you tore your car up — and my first year, I tore my late model up and we only got to run seven times because he wrecked it every other week.
“The second time, we wrecked one time and we won the championship because we were always around at the end and would take advantage of other people's mistakes. I guess it's just the way I was taught to race. You have to be around at the end to win these races.”
Harvick has evolved from contender to closer. And with two wins to its credit, the No. 29 team has an advantage over the field with the new points system. Although Harvick is already fifth in the points standings, 15 points behind Kyle Busch, the victories should make him a lock in September and allow the team to focus on the Chase now, much in the way the five-time championship No. 48 crew has in the past.
“I'll take our chances on making the Chase with the wild-card stuff,” said Harvick, referencing the new system that will take the top 10 in standings, then has two spots available for drivers outside that group, but inside the top 20 , who have the most wins. “So here we are, six weeks into the season, and I feel like we can take more chances than we did last year. . . . I feel like we can really push the limits on trying to win races, just the fact that we have got that cushion in our back pocket.
“Something that we have only done, I think, once before is win back-to-back weeks, and you know, to come out this season and win at racetracks that we had not won at before, but we feel like we have been fairly good at the last couple of years, is good for our confidence, to say the least.”
And although the driver jokes that he’s “the highest-strung person” or “turns into this lunatic” when he straps in his race car, between his focus in the cockpit and his swagger out, it would be difficult to bet against Harvick this season.