He was a picture of contentment that day in May as he lounged on a couch in his office at Kevin Harvick Inc. in Kernersville, N.C. Kevin Harvick smiled and laughed as he recounted how he'd won races at Fontana and Martinsville earlier in the season, of how he'd developed a reputation for being the best closer in NASCAR by consistently turning his fastest laps at the end of races. Back then, Harvick had every reason to believe that 2011 would be the year he'd capture his first Sprint Cup championship.
"It's a long season, but right now things are going really, really well for us," Harvick said in May. "The key for us, obviously, is to keep it going and hopefully be peaking right when the Chase starts."
Some four months later, that's precisely what's NOT happening for Harvick. After taking the checkered flag in three of the first 12 events of the season, Harvick has only one top-five finish in the last 12 races. Even more troubling for the No. 29 team, he only has one top 10-finish in his last six starts. A season that began with so much promise has fallen into decay. The low point came last Saturday night at Bristol. As Harvick puttered around the track in 37th place and four laps down just past the midway point, the frustrated driver told his crew chief Gil Martin over the radio, "This team hasn't been good for four months."
No they haven't, which raises the question: What happened? Though Harvick is sixth in the standings and already has qualified for the Chase, he'll be the first to tell you that his team isn't currently championship caliber. Like several other top-flight drivers right now -- most notably Tony Stewart -- Harvick simply can't find the proper balance in his car, as he'll vacillate from being too loose during one run (meaning, the back end of the car slips up the track through the turns) to being too tight on the next (meaning the front end slides up the track through the turns). All teams deal with this issue, of course. But this affliction is starting to look like it could be terminal to Harvick's title hopes.
Can they turn it around this weekend at Atlanta, where in 2001 Harvick memorably earned his first career Cup victory just three races after he took the seat of the late Dale Earnhardt in the Goodwrench Chevy? It won't be easy, because perhaps the most difficult thing to achieve in NASCAR is to suddenly find speed after months of trial and error.
Here are four other drivers -- including my pick to win -- to watch on Sunday in the penultimate race of the Sprint Cup regular season:
If Busch, Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard or Marcos Ambrose win on Sunday, the driver will earn a $3M bonus -- one million for himself, one million for the charity of his choice and one million for a fan. It's called the Sprint Summer Showdown, and heading into the weekend you've got to like Busch's chances of pocketing the extra cash.
He leads the points, leads the series in wins (four) and appears capable of dominating on any given day. He finished fifth in this race last year and in 13 career starts at the 1.5-mile oval he has one victory. It says here that he notches another W on Sunday and makes one fan and one charity very happy.
No driver is on a more impressive roll right now than Keselowski. Over the last four races, Keselowski, in order, has finished first, second, third and first. This is usually what Jimmie Johnson does during this stretch of the season as he gears up for the Chase, so, not surprisingly, Keselowski's recent dominance has very much caught the attention of the garage. Suddenly, a driver who was outside the top 20 in points just five weeks ago is viewed as a legitimate title contender.
Currently 11th in the points, Keselowski has three wins this season, but for those wins to translate into bonus points that carry over into the Chase he needs to pass Tony Stewart in the standings to get into the top 10. He currently trails Stewart, who is winless in 2011, by 21 points.
Stewart only has one top-10 finish in his last four starts. As for Keselowski, in two career starts at Atlanta his average finish is 30.5. But given how well he's performing right now, expect a top-five finish from the No. 2 team on Sunday.
With two races left in the regular season, Earnhardt is clinging to a playoff berth. He's currently ninth in the standings and has a 39-point cushion over the hard-charging Keselowski. Barring a major collapse -- and at least one DNF -- Earnhardt should sail into the Chase.
Atlanta has long been Earnhardt's favorite track on the circuit. He excels on running the high-line around the 1.5-mile oval. If he's going to break his winless streak this season -- and the drought currently stands at 117 races -- he could do so this weekend. In 23 career starts here, Junior's average finish is 12.5, which makes Atlanta, statistically speaking, one of Earnhardt's best on the circuit.
Over the last few years, Edwards has developed a reputation for being one of the top drivers on the intermediate-length tracks. His owner, Jack Roush, has always prided himself on running well at these venues, and so Sunday should offer a good barometer of whether or not Edwards, who dominated the early part of the season, will be a serious player in the Chase. Five of the 10 tracks in the playoffs are intermediates, so to win it all a driver must flash consistent speed at these venues.
Edwards has fallen from first to fourth in the standings over the last three weeks. But he finished second in Atlanta last fall (behind Stewart) and has three wins here in 13 career starts. If nothing else, Edwards and his entire No. 99 team need a shot of confidence heading into the Chase, and Atlanta may very well be the place where they get their season back on track.