Harvick can look toward Chase

Posted April 06, 2011, at 9:51 p.m.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Two wins in two races doesn’t make Kevin Harvick the sudden favorite to win NASCAR’s title this year.

It does, however, give him a whole lot of leeway under NASCAR’s new qualifying standards for the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Harvick picked up his second win of the season last weekend at Martinsville Speedway, where he ran down Dale Earnhardt Jr. over the closing laps for a second-straight come-from-nowhere victory. Although it moved him four spots in the standings to fifth, Harvick doesn’t have to worry about points for the foreseeable future.

Because NASCAR this year changed the way it will set the Chase — two wild-cards will be given to the drivers with the most wins who aren’t ranked in the top 10 — Harvick may have the freedom to start planning his championship run a mere six weeks into the season. Two wins would have been enough if this system was in place last year.

“I’ll take our chances on making the Chase with the wild card stuff,” Harvick said. “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 racing, and just the fact that we have got that caution in our back pocket.”

That’s trouble for five-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and everyone else, too.

Harvick was strong last year in leading the resurgence at Richard Childress Racing. He won three races, led the points race for 20 weeks during the regular season, and hung with Johnson and Denny Hamlin during the Chase. He was still in the hunt headed into the season finale, and finished third in the final standings, 41 points behind Johnson and two behind Hamlin.

Unlike Hamlin, who has sputtered out of the gate this season and has been plagued by reliability issues at Joe Gibbs Racing, Harvick has picked up where he left off in the pursuit of Johnson. The only glitch was an engine failure in the season-opening Daytona 500, where Harvick made just 22 laps before his day ended with a 42nd-place finish.

He laughed that day when asked if was concerned about his position in the points — he left Daytona ranked 36th — and still maintains he’s never worried.

“I was laughing because it had been 156 races since we had had an engine problem and it’s hard to get down on anybody for 1-in-156 in this sport,” he said. “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 are more harm than I will good getting down on them.”

So it’s been all about positive attitude for Harvick, even though in-race challenges the last two weeks have given him reason to lose his cool. His win over Johnson at California two weeks ago required in-race adjustments that allowed him to run down Johnson for a last-lap victory.

It was no different Sunday at Bristol, when his Chevrolet was so loose at the start that team owner Richard Childress had to interject over the radio to get Harvick to calm down. Crew chief Gil Martin was able to game plan during a 25-minute red flag, and the team got Harvick in position to race for the win.

Harvick called it “a great character-building day for our team,” but quickly joked he wasn’t sure how many he can take.

Martin, the crew chief, has likely felt the same way. The Martinsville win came in his 100th race with Harvick, a milestone that at times may not have seemed reachable.

Martin became Harvick’s crew chief in early 2009 when Childress ordered a wholesale crew swap in an effort to solve RCR’s woes. It wasn’t the quick fix the owner wanted, but it ultimately got Harvick back on track to compete for championships.

Although Harvick’s nickname is “Happy,” he’s been known to be anything but when his team isn’t performing.

“I should get a medal,” Martin joked. “Kevin’s 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 race track, because there are a lot of things that are much more important to me at the race track and we don’t spend a lot time looking for the trick shock of the week or the trick setup or hot tip ca r.”

Now they just look to build race winning cars, and can do so from here on out with one eye on the 10-race Chase.

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