Tom Bowles
Monday August 16th, 2010

Four races left to the Chase meant 400 miles at Michigan in a sneak preview of how the playoffs could shake out. Fontana's twin sister, this two-mile oval serves as a true testing ground for teams looking to conquer a track type that makes up five of the ten races on NASCAR's postseason schedule. It's exactly the type of moment title heavyweights have used to assert themselves and step towards the front of the pack in recent years.

So it stands to logic that Sunday's winner was... driving for a team that hadn't won a race at Michigan since 1990? Find out why Kevin Harvick's "upset" meant more than usual in Five Points to take away from the automotive capital of America:

1) Kevin Harvick has arrived as a title contender.

Yes, Harvick entered Michigan the point leader by nearly 200 over Jeff Gordon, cruising towards a regular season title on the strength of a NASCAR-best 15 top-10 finishes. But that consistency has come despite just 170 laps led entering Sunday, a statistic that ranked him 11th behind likely non-Chasers Juan Pablo Montoya, Kasey Kahne, and Jamie McMurray. With just two victories to his credit this season -- Russian Roulette-style plate races at Daytona and Talladega -- some wondered whether Harvick had the firepower to dominate a race the way that Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and his other main title competition have done at times this season.

Sunday, those questions were answered at the most surprising of venues: intermediates. Known as more of a short-track ace, Harvick hadn't won on a 1.5 to 2-mile oval since 2002, and it had been seven years since he so much as led a lap at Michigan, let alone finished in the top 5. His last three runs at the speedway produced a pedestrian average finish of 16.3, with zero top-10 finishes and zero confidence he'd wind up in Victory Lane.

"The worst race we had [this season] was the first one here [in June]," he said Sunday. "We made a couple mistakes from practice and the way we practiced. It led to some bad decisions we made with the car over the course of the day. We just got off, and never could fix it."

That left the team willing to take a home run shot entering the weekend, in the midst of what Harvick termed "vacation" after his playoff spot was all but assured (this race officially clinched it). That means there's nothing left for this team to do but go for wins, each 10-point bonus bringing them closer to five-win leaders Johnson and Hamlin heading into September.

"Our cars had run good here before, but I hadn't," he said, explaining their unlikely ticket to Sunday success. "The last couple times, we've really committed ourselves to driving in different spots on the racetrack, doing different things from inside the car."

That flexibility to try new things led to a surprising change: run the high line, rim-riding as close to the wall as possible in a move that led to a greater distance to run but better grip coming off the corners. Like clockwork, Harvick clicked with those changes instantly, leading 60 laps, whipping the field by up to seven seconds at points before late cautions cost him track position and forced him to catch, then pass Denny Hamlin on older tires for the victory in a hard-fought battle. To do it, he found the groove he wanted courtesy a rather unlikely source: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

"I went home and watched some tapes, to be honest with you," he said, referring to Earnhardt's three victories in Nationwide and Cup that helped shape his preparation. "Some of his previous races, he always seemed to have a good handle on running the top groove.

"So it was just more of a rhythm thing [for me], and some things that I needed to change in my approach to run up there, making that commitment. It worked out for us today."

But that's not the only thing shifting around Harvick's world. For the first time, people skeptical over a Harvick-Childress duo that was heading towards divorce this time last year are finally coming around to the fact they could actually walk away with the 2010 title. Considering everyone else in contention keeps running as balanced as your local playground seesaw, why not? Who cares they finished last year winless and 19th in the standings? Richard Childress will tell you a lot can change in a year; after finishing outside the top-10 in points for the only time in his career driving the No. 3, Earnhardt went from dud to stud in 1993 to win his sixth of seven championships in NASCAR.

"You never say, we're the team to beat," says Childress, remaining humble in the face of building momentum. "You got to have confidence, but so many factors play in. We know we're going to be a contender. That's all we can ask for is to be a contender. If we're that, we'll have a shot at winning it."

It would be a storybook ending, but for now, the No. 29 team will have to settle for the short-term version: Harvick will have his annual pro-am tournament for charity on Monday, before a Tuesday press conference to announce Budweiser as his major sponsor for 2011 and beyond.

2) Clint Bowyer's month has been filled with missed opportunities.

On the other end of the spectrum, Childress' worst-performing driver out of the trio spent Sunday shooting himself in the foot. One week after a mechanical failure left Clint Bowyer on the outside looking in on the Chase, the waters parted for what could have been a red-letter day for his No. 33 team. Main rival Mark Martin hit the wall early, an uncharacteristic mistake that would eventually leave him 28th and reeling. Fellow bubble contender Ryan Newman spun, courtesy Joey Logano's front bumper, while Jamie McMurray spun his wheels around 20th the whole day. It all left the door wide open for Bowyer, a 5th-place result all that was needed to put the last Chase slot on lockdown.

For a while, it looked like that was a mere formality, Bowyer part of an RCR onslaught that was running as high as 5-6-7. But while Harvick kept charging, Bowyer faded along with teammate Burton towards a 13th-place run that didn't help secure much of anything. It was his third consecutive finish outside the top-10, a season high that also left each of his three challengers well within striking distance.

"Clint still is pretty wired," said Childress, well aware his driver has suffered through some poor performances in recent weeks. "You got to mature through these things. That's one thing that Clint's working on, we're working on with him.

"He and I are going to talk tomorrow. Hopefully, we can do some things that will get him focused in on what he's got to accomplish these next three races. It's a lot about being right there and having the focus and concentration [to perform]."

Right now, that appears to be lacking while Martin remains just 35 points away. With the Kasey Kahne distraction now in the rear-view mirror, he or Newman now have the edge to leapfrog back over Bowyer despite two short tracks -- Bristol and Richmond -- left on the regular season schedule.

3) Roush Fenway Racing is back.

Bowyer's predicament intensified with bubble driver Matt Kenseth's fifth-place finish, the first in three months for the veteran as part of a red-letter day for Roush Fenway Racing. Boosted by their boss Jack Roush's return to the track, the four RFR cars all finished solidly within the top 11, with Greg Biffle leading the most laps (66) while joining Kenseth and birthday boy Carl Edwards inside the top 5 and virtually locking down their 2010 Chase participation.

"This is how you have to run every week if you plan on winning races," Edwards said afterwards. "Fortunately we've been running like this for a while. It's really good."

"If we can run like this the next few races and keep competitive in the Chase, it is going to be great for us and great for all the Ford teams."

Observers agree, with this trio now a firm lock for the Chase. With even struggling David Ragan pumping out an 11th-place finish -- his best at a non-plate track since October last Fall -- it's going to be all smiles within the Roush camp this Monday.

4) Tony Stewart may be this year's Chase Cinderella.

It's hard to call a two-time champion the underdog, but no one would have given Stewart a ghost of a chance after ending the month of May just 16th in points. Two-and-a-half months later, he's charged up to fourth on the strength of a summer stretch where he's scored nine straight top-10 finishes in non-restrictor plate events.

Still without a win, that leaves Stewart seeded last if the playoffs started today, some 50 points behind Johnson and Hamlin. But no one's scored more points lately than the driver of the No. 14 Chevy, just the type of red hot performance that could propel himself in the playoffs ala Juan Pablo Montoya last season and Greg Biffle the year before that. Hopefully, the temperamental Stewart can find the right slipper that fits him...

5) Several struggling drivers redeemed themselves with solid days.

The final running order gave us some surprising names inside the top 10. Elliott Sadler, just two weeks removed from a near-tragic wreck at Pocono Raceway, brought his No. 19 Dodge home ninth, his season-best finish as he openly auditions for a 2011 ride. Martin Truex, Jr. was one spot ahead of him, a second top-10 in three weeks while continuing his therapeutic recovery from the Jeff Gordon: Battering Ram starring his NAPA Toyota filmed at Sonoma.

And while it's not like Denny Hamlin has had an awful season, a runner-up finish was the best he'd run since winning at Michigan back in June. With some better track position than his 33rd-place starting spot, he and not Harvick might have been standing in Victory Lane. Considering the way Joe Gibbs Racing has performed in recent weeks, it's got to give the No. 11 confidence they won't enter the playoffs running on less than all eight cylinders.

Race Grade: B. The action was wild back in the pack and on restarts, and Hamlin and Harvick's battle for the win was scintillating stuff. But there still seems to be a running theme of drivers sitting on their hands until the last 30 laps in these Cup races. If there's not enough action until the fourth quarter, then you won't have fans sticking around to see the end.

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