Kevin Harvickcontinued his RCR team's resurgence as he roared to the Chase lead with adominating New Hampshire win
Forty-fiveminutes before the engines fired on Sunday afternoon at New HampshireInternational Speedway to start the 2006 Chase for the Nextel Cup, KevinHarvick was lolling around pit road, pressing the flesh, posing for pictureswith fans and flashing a toothy smile. Harvick, who two days before hadcaptured the pole position for the Sylvania 300, was reveling in his status asthe driver to beat at the 1.058-mile flat track.
Just four hourslater, after Harvick had won the race with a car so dominating that it seemedto have an extra gear, his mood was even better. For the first time in hissix-year Cup career, Harvick had seized the points lead. "Our entireprogram at RCR [Richard Childress Racing] has come an incredibly long way inthe last year," said the 30-year-old Harvick late on Sunday as he wadedthrough a swarm of Sharpie-wielding fans in the infield. "We're all on thesame page, and it's really showing right now."
In fact, theresurgence of RCR, the onetime powerhouse team that catapulted Dale EarnhardtSr. to six championships between 1986 and '94, has been evident all season.Harvick, who led 196 of the 300 laps on Sunday, already has more wins in 2006(four) than he had in the last four seasons combined (three), and he holds a35-point lead in the standings over rookie Denny Hamlin, who finished fourth atNew Hampshire. Harvick's teammate Jeff Burton, who like Harvick qualified forhis first Chase this year, has also taken the garage by surprise this season.Burton, 39, who has won 17 races in his 13 Cup seasons, but none since 2001,has 16 top 10 finishes--only two drivers have more--including a seventh-placerun on Sunday, leaving him fifth in the standings with nine races left.
So how has RCR,an organization that had sputtered ever since the death of Earnhardt in 2001,suddenly become a force again? "The turnaround started over the winter whenthe team made major improvements in the engine and aero departments," saysKevin Collins, an engineer on Harvick's team. "We're also sharing as muchinformation between the three Childress teams as any organization inNASCAR."
Indeed, at eachrace the engineers and pit crews for Harvick, Burton and the third RCR driver,rookie Clint Bowyer, all have access to a computer database that contains allthe details of each car's setup. The three teams then are in constant contactonce the green flag flies, trying collectively to figure out how to gain speed."This is kind of a new way of doing things," says Collins, "andit's obviously working."
So is therelationship between Harvick and Burton. During his first five seasons on theCup circuit, Harvick was as temperamental as any driver in the series. He wassuspended for a race in 2002 after intentionally wrecking a driver in theCraftsman Truck Series, and he occasionally even lit into his team duringmeetings. But after Burton arrived at RCR from Roush Racing in August 2004, hebecame Harvick's mentor. His presence has helped Harvick become a moreeven-keeled driver. "Jeff has been through a lot, and he's someone I cantalk to and bounce things off," Harvick said late on Sunday. "He's beena huge part of RCR's success."
A few momentslater Harvick hopped onto a golf cart. As he zoomed off, the broad smile onHarvick's face cast a new light on the ironic nickname he was stuck with yearsago but that now could honestly be said to describe his state of mind:Happy.
• Get more NASCARanalysis from Lars Anderson at SI.com/racing.
In 2004 it was Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield. Lastyear it was Kurt Busch. And in Sunday's Sylvania 300, two more Chase drivershad serious dents put in their title hopes by wrecks at New HampshireInternational Speedway: Jimmie Johnson (above), who held the points lead for 22weeks this season, crashed on Lap 88 and finished the race 39th, dropping toninth in the standings; and Kyle Busch (SI, Sept. 18) hit the wall on the thirdlap and again on the 198th and wound up 38th, tumbling from fourth to 10th inthe points.... The circuit shifts to Dover (Del.) International Speedway onSunday for the Dover 400. The driver to beat will be Matt Kenseth, who won onthe high bankings of the Monster Mile on June 4.