Happy days are here again for Harvick

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Long Pond, PA (Sports Network) - Kevin Harvick was enduring a miserable season at this point in 2009, as he sat 23rd in the Sprint Cup Series point standings. One year later, "Happy Harvick" is smiling more than ever after winning his third race of the season and becoming the first driver to lock down one of the 12 positions for this year's championship Chase.

Harvick's win at Michigan on Sunday was his first on a non-restrictor plate track since November 2006. Harvick was winless in NASCAR's top-tier series during the 2008 and '09 seasons before his 115-race drought came to an end in April at Talladega. He also won in July at Daytona.

With three races remaining before the Chase begins next month at New Hampshire, Harvick and his Richard Childress Racing teammates, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton, are in the top-12 in points. Bowyer finished 13th at Michigan and reclaimed the coveted 12th spot. After his disappointing 28th-place run, Mark Martin is 13th and trails Bowyer by 35 points. Burton holds the seventh position.

Harvick has been the points leader since the spring race at Richmond. He now is 680 points ahead of Bowyer, a margin that allowed him to clinch a spot in the Chase after Michigan. The points margin between Harvick and second-place Jeff Gordon is 293.

Harvick's phenomenal season has been the highlight of Richard Childress Racing's resurrection in 2010.

Kevin Harvick has been the points leader since the spring race at Richmond.
"I think the reason for it is we were so damn bad last year," Harvick said of the resurgence. "I think it's just a matter of everybody was embarrassed last year. We've really been running pretty well since probably the last six or eight weeks of last year. It didn't just happen today.

"One of the best things that we all went through last year was the fact that we I realized everybody didn't like losing as much as I did, and we all wanted to achieve the same goals. We were headed in the right direction to do those things. I think it's just coincidental timing."

Team owner Richard Childress would agree.

"We got way off last year, started coming back towards the end of the year," Childress said. "Kevin and I talked. We knew a lot of things we wanted to change, work on, fix. We fixed a lot of them. I'm just happy to have him back here for three more years. We're gonna be contenders, for sure."

After a disappointing 19th-place finish in points last year, it looked like Harvick was on his way out of RCR at the conclusion of this season, when his contract with the team was set to expire.

Harvick, who has driven the No.29 car for RCR in Cup since replacing Dale Earnhardt after Earnhardt's fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, signed a contract extension with Childress in May.

Childress and Harvick have scheduled a press conference at their race shop in Welcome, NC on Tuesday. The duo reportedly will announce that Budweiser will sponsor Harvick's No.29 team, starting in 2011. His present sponsor, Shell/Pennzoil, is leaving RCR at season's end and taking its sponsorship to Kurt Busch's new No.22 ride at Penske Racing next year.

As good as he's been, Harvick has not cornered the market on winning, and his main goal right now is to pick up wins and additional bonus points before the start of the Chase. Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin lead the series with five victories each, though Johnson has not won since the last weekend in June at New Hampshire, and Hamlin hasn't driven into Victory Lane since two months ago at Michigan. Harvick is next in line with his three wins.

"Do you think it would go over well if we went on vacation? Probably not," Harvick said. "Right now, we're in a fortunate position to be doing what we're doing. I've been in that 12th, 13th-place battle and it sucks, to be honest with you. You can't sleep at night, and you can't do anything to get your mind off of that.

"We're going to enjoy it. We're going to go and race hard, and we're going to try to gain 30 more bonus points. Hopefully we can have a couple things that we can try. For sure now, whether it's engines, parts, pieces, over the next three weeks, try to get a little bit better."

Hamlin and Johnson could clinch their spots in the Chase after next Saturday night's race at Bristol.

Harvick has emerged as the favorite to win this year's Chase in some circles, but that's a dangerous line of thinking based on recent events.

Last year, Tony Stewart won three races and held a sizeable points lead heading into the regular season-ending race at Michigan. But Johnson dominated the Chase by winning four races and easily capturing his record fourth consecutive Cup title. Stewart finished sixth in points, with one win in the Chase at Kansas.

In 2008, Kyle Busch won eight races before entering the Chase, but Busch's title hopes quickly went up in smoke after he experienced engine trouble in the first two races of the playoffs.

Harvick has a firm grasp on that history.

"I think over the last four years, you can look at the 48 [Johnson's team], and they've done the same thing and won the championship," he said. "Until you beat the guy that's won the last four championships, we're fast enough to beat them, but the circumstances and all the things have to go your way over the last 10 weeks. It's not about a whole season anymore; it's about 10 weeks."

Harvick winning his first Cup championship is by no means out of the realm of possibility, but it would be a stunning upset if he dethrones Johnson's dynasty.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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