By Tim Tuttle
October 06, 2010

Kevin Harvick delivered an imposing statement with his third-place finish at Kansas last Sunday, showing he's capable of maintaining the same excellence that made him Sprint Cup's 26-race regular season point leader. Three races into the Chase, Harvick has two top-fives and sits third in the points, 30 behind leader Jimmie Johnson.

Harvick started 24th at Kansas and drove the No. 29 Chevrolet impressively into the top five by the 86th of 267 laps. When two cautions were separated by seven laps, Harvick stayed out following the second yellow and took the lead for 15 laps. The strategy forced him to take four tires on his final stop. He lined up sixth for the last restart on 189 and climbed to third.

It's been a familiar pattern for Harvick in this turnaround season. Kansas was the fifth time that he's started outside the top 20 and brought it home in the top five. Harvick has done it twice in the Chase, climbing from 27th to fifth at New Hampshire and he's proved that it doesn't matter where he starts, he can get to the front. He has the most top-fives (13) and top-10s (19) this year.

Harvick isn't doing it alone. Richard Childress Racing has built better cars this year and crew chief Gil Martin has the team performing almost flawlessly. They make few mistakes and get the most out of what the car will give them. It's a potent recipe for a championship.

It may seem logical for the leader after 26 races to be a top contender in the Chase, but that hasn't always been the case. Tony Stewart led last year and faded to sixth, 343 points behind Johnson. Kyle Busch led the regular season in 2008 and finished 10th, 498 behind Johnson. In the six previous years of the Chase, Stewart is the lone driver to be in front after 26 races and win the Sprint Cup.

Martin is the team's unifying force. "Gil's very good at leading the team and keeping everyone calm because I'm pretty high strung as far as what happens on the racetrack," Harvick said. "I can be myself and not have to worry about who I need to apologize to for something I said on the radio. He takes care of all of that."

This is Harvick's fourth season in the 10-race Chase. He understands the pressure that it brings. "As you go through these 10 weeks, the mental grind of the whole process is a lot because it's all you think about constantly and this is what we all race for," he explained. "We all want to be in position to win a championship and this is the time to make it happen. It's just like flipping a light switch when you get into the last 10 weeks, it's just a whole different mindset knowing that every point matters."

Harvick finished 15th at Dover in the second Chase stop and knew he had to put together strong runs at Kansas and Auto Club Speedway in California, Sunday's race, to be a threat for the championship.

"We got through Dover with not as good a day as we thought we should have had," Harvick said last Friday at Kansas. "We thought that was going to be a tough weekend for us based upon everything we've done in the past, so these next two weeks are going to set the tone for our particular team and they're important."

It was mission accomplished for Harvick at Kansas. He's feeling confident going to California, where he finished second to Johnson in February.

"It is all about maintaining that (points) gap," he said after the race at Kansas. "We were able to beat the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) and maintain with the No. 4 (Johnson) and that is what we feel we have to do. We feel like California is another good week for us.

"I feel like I let one slip away there (California in February), just getting into the wall there at the end. We still had a good finish and (teammate) Jeff Burton ran really well there, too, so we're looking forward to going back. Obviously, a lot can change. It's been a hot summer and the racetrack will be different, but it's been a good racetrack for us over the last couple of years."

California is Harvick's home track in Sprint Cup. He's from Bakersfield, 90 miles north. He has two top-fives and four top-10s in the last five races there, but he's never won in 16 starts. In fact, he's winless in any of NASCAR's national divisions there. He also has 15 Nationwide and four Camping World Truck starts at California and will drive in Saturday's Nationwide race.

Harvick is overdue for a win at his home track and this may be his best opportunity. He won at Michigan in August and it's a two-mile sister track to California, although with different degrees of banking. He will likely have to win somewhere in the Chase to win the championship.

Sunday would be perfect timing.

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