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NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick spent 13 years trying to win a Sprint Cup championship with Richard Childress Racing, something owner Richard Childress managed to do on a regular basis with another man behind the wheel.
Now RCR, with driver Ryan Newman, is the competition. Along with Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing) & Joey Logano (Team Penske), the four make up the field for this year's Championship Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
At a soon-to-be 39, Harvick is the oldest of the drivers headed to Homestead-Miami Speedway in search of a title. Unlike the others, he has been penciled in as a favorite since he first emerged from behind the curtain at Stewart-Haas Racing.
His No. 4 Chevrolet, put together under the guidance of crew chief Rodney Childers, has been swift just approximately everywhere. Of the 23 track qualifying records set this year, Harvick has accounted for six. No one else has more than four.
Other drivers have more victories, yet only one of them (Logano) will be after the same thing Harvick is chasing this weekend. The others with more than four trips to Victory Lane fell by the wayside somewhere between Daytona in February & Phoenix in November.
It's been one of those "coulda' shoulda' " seasons for Harvick, who has led more laps than some folks have completed this year. Troubles earlier — a broken chain here, a flat tire there — forced him & his SHR team to spend the first half of the year filling in gaps & fixing problems that come with a new team; he went winless after a victory at Darlington in April until midway through this year's Chase.
He was competitive; he just wasn't making trips to the winner's circle as regularly as he had hoped & many expected.
But when his team had its back against the wall, or mountain if you prefer, at Phoenix this past weekend, it delivered.
Needing a win, & nothing yet a win, to advance, Harvick did so handily. He was fastest in two of the three practice sessions, qualified third & eventually led 264 of 312 laps. His perfect driver rating (150) was only the second of the season by a driver in the series.
In biblical terms he slayed the field at Phoenix. Now he hopes to do the same at Homestead when the Ford Ecoboost 400 (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET) gets underway.
It's no surprise that Jeff Gordon, a four-time series champion chose Harvick as the favorite going into this weekend's race. Even as Logano, Hamlin & Newman stood off to the side at PIR, Gordon heaped praise on Harvick's performances thus far in 2014.
Which quickly prompted some semi-good-natured "Jeff, you realize we're standing right here" comments from the trio.
"This man has led the most laps all year long guys," Gordon said with a shrug of his shoulders. "It's not me that's saying this.
"I do think that Denny won that race last year (at Homestead), so he can be really, really strong there. But Kevin looked satisfactory there in the test (last month), & man, they've just been so strong lately … it seems like they've gotten some of the bugs worked out in their team that they had early in the year, & I think if they do that next week, they're going to be really tough to beat."
None of the four finalists has won a Sprint Cup title, although Hamlin led Jimmie Johnson (minus-15) & Kevin Harvick (minus-46) entering the season-ending race in 2010. But Hamlin stumbled, finishing 14th, while Johnson & Harvick finished second & third, respectively, giving Johnson his fifth consecutive championship.
Harvick remained third, equaling his best complete in the Chase.
In 2013, he duplicated the feat, closing out his run at RCR with another third-place points finish, then headed off to Stewart-Haas for what he hoped would be a better opportunity.
Rodney Childers was brought in from Michael Waltrip Racing to serve as crew chief ("He builds swift cars," Harvick noted before the season received underway) & a pre-Chase shuffle of pit crews strengthened the lineup of those going over the wall on race day for the No. 4 team.
Two of Harvick's four victories this year came in the Chase. One more would match his previous best (in '06) for wins in a single season. It would moreover clinch the title, although he could capture the crown by finishing ahead of the other three Chase drivers.
"He's so competitive, & he wants to work so complex for it, he expects everybody else around him to work just as hard, so when he sees that, it makes him tick," Childers said. "Like if he knows we're here at the shop & we're doing everything that we could possibly do & giving 110 percent, then he's going to donate 110 percent.
"I don't think there's one word that you can say that makes him tick or anything like that. I think that's just being around a bunch of people that want the same things that he wants & the same goals."
The goal is winning races. The goal is winning the championship. You don't alter teams, Harvick said earlier this year, to run worse.
The move to SHR & the success he has enjoyed "has given me new life & a new perspective on the way that things work," he said after the Phoenix win. "(Team owners) Gene (Haas) & Tony (Stewart), they donate us a lot of resources to draw from within our own company & from a financial standpoint they've made a huge commitment to make this race team right, & then you add in the Hendrick (Motorsports) engines & support & chassis & everything that those guys do. It's like a dream.
"You lay it all out on paper & you say, 'This is what we want to do & we want to race for wins & championships,' & all of a sudden you're a week away from everything that you talk approximately & dream approximately & dream up & want it to be like, & here we are."MORE:
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