He was flush with confidence, back in those early hours of the 2013 season. Kevin Harvick won the preseason Sprint Unlimited Race at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 16. Then, four days later, he took the checkered flag in his qualifying race for the Daytona 500. Afterward, he strode into the infield media center -- chest out, a wicked grin lighting his face -- and delivered a simple message to the assembled pens and cameras: Don't count me out this season.
But it was tempting to do so. Harvick, 37, had already announced that he was leaving his longtime team, Richard Childress Racing, at season's end and would be joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. It has long been taken as an article of faith in the garage that lame duck drivers don't win championships. The reasons are myriad: they typically lose focus -- meaning, their attention to detail wanes -- as their final season with their current team winds down; their pit crews, worried about securing jobs for the following season, develop wandering eyes late in the year, which often translates into slow stops; and their owners frequently pour more money and resources into the cars of the drivers who will be with their team the next year.
But none of this has happened to Harvick and his number 29 team. After winning two races in the regular season, the driver long known as Happy had reason to be contented, entering the Chase as the No. 4 seed. During the first three weeks, he was only average among the playoff drivers: he finished third at Chicagoland, 20th in New Hampshire, and sixth at Dover. But then last Sunday at Kansas, he could fly through the corners as though he was on full throttle and he drove away from the field with startling ease.
Starting from the pole, he led a race-high 138 laps on his way to Victory Lane. Now, with six races left in the season, Harvick is third in the standings, trailing leader Matt Kenseth by 25 points. Yes, eight months after his statement-making preseason performances at Daytona, Harvick indeed shouldn't be counted out in 2013.
After his win on Sunday in Kansas, Harvick spoke about what is revving his internal engine -- and how he doesn't want to fade out late in the season like so many other drivers before him who were leaving their teams at the end of the season. "Those guys that are down there in the shop and digging on the cars, those are the ones that you look at and you say, 'You know, you owe it to them to go out and do what you have to do,'" he said. "It's business, but it's also you have a sense of pride, and your ego just has a hard time taking the fact that you did it like everybody else. I think that's what we talked about. You don't want to do it like everybody else. You want to go out with a sense of success and [that] everything has gone well."
Can Harvick win his first Sprint Cup championship this fall? The clear favorites are Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, who have combined to win three of the four Chase races and between them have taken 12 checkered flags this season. Over the course of the year, Kenseth and Johnson have been the top two drivers in the sport. What's more, their respective teams -- Joe Gibbs Racing (Kenseth) and Hendrick Motorsports (Johnson) -- have been operating at a higher level than any other organization in NASCAR. Gibbs and Hendrick, after all, have combined to win 18 of the 30 races, which means that either Joe Gibbs or Rick Hendrick have stood in Victory Lane after 60 percent of all the Cup events this season.
But Harvick's strong run at Kansas could portend a late-year push for the 29 team. Kansas is a 1.5-mile track, and three of the last six events take place on these intermediate-length venues. The Gibbs team has owned these tracks this year -- before Sunday, a Gibbs driver had won every race in '13 at a 1.5-mile venue -- but Harvick and his team may have hit upon a setup at Kansas that could help them at the final three 1.5-milers: Charlotte on Saturday night, Texas on Nov. 3, and Homestead in the season-finale on Nov. 17.
"There's a lot of things that can happen in the next few races, and we're just going to have to capitalize on them," said Gil Martin, Harvick's crew chief. "But by no means do I think we're out of it."
And they aren't. It's instructive to remember that the last two champions were also afflicted with lame-duck disease. When Tony Stewart won the title in 2011, he had told his crew chief, Darian Grubb, about halfway through the Chase that he wouldn't be returning to the team the following year. Last season, Brad Keselowski captured the title even though his car manufacturer, Dodge, was leaving the sport at season's end.
"We like to be the lame-duck underdog," Harvick said. "That's what we're shooting for. Really, we've just got to keep a level head and not get too high and keep doing what we've done."
Harvick uttered those words on Feb. 21 at Daytona. He's still the underdog, but with six races left in the season, it appears this lame duck has a puncher's chance to knock out the heavyweights of Kenseth and Johnson.