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Can Harvick win 3 in a row to claim title?

By JONATHAN INGRAM
The Sports Xchange

November 07. 2017 1:01AM

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick celebrates winning the AAA Texas 500 race at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)



Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch need to check their rearview mirrors.

Something might be gaining on them in the final stages of NASCAR’s playoffs — the Ford of Kevin Harvick.

The competition at Toyota may have new Camrys that have dominated on the 1.5-mile tracks, but Stewart-Haas Racing has the new Harvick as well as this year’s new deal with Ford. There seems to be less irony in Harvick’s nickname “Happy” these days and more grip for the Fords in the corners.

Yep, this is the same 2014 champion who has been known to push and shove after races, to dress down his pit crew to the bare bones and more lately to take a Zen-like “leave me alone” approach to what has been a stellar and combative career. An improved version of that guy is on the move, headed to the front with a head of steam as the playoffs draw down to the final two races.

Harvick caught leader Truex in the closing laps at the Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday in a finish best summed up as stunning.

Stewart-Haas Racing team owner Tony Stewart said expect more from the driver with a laser-like focus.

“I know Kevin, and I can tell watching his driving style, there’s something those other three guys that are going to make it to Homestead here in a couple weeks, they’ve got something to be worried about,” Stewart said. “I’ve seen this man when he gets locked in like this and he’s strong right now.”

As usual, a strong car and a strong driver go hand-in-hand. One suspects the SHR team has completely revised the mechanical grip of its Fords to get better traction versus the Toyotas. But maybe all the usual technical stuff is not the big story.

Harvick says his weekly radio show on NASCAR’s Sirius XM channel has given him a chance to let his hair down a bit, to kick back and enjoy sharing himself with guests and listeners. An intelligent driver with interesting opinions, the Bakersfield, Calif., native has chilled and perhaps found the happy medium between passion and anger.

The passion for winning was evident as he hunted down Truex for a 37th career victory. It was his first victory at the Texas track and fans paid tribute by lining the fences afterward, a scene reminiscent of Harvick’s first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup victory in Atlanta not long after replacing Dale Earnhardt, Sr. That post-race celebration in 2001 was in honor of No. 3. This one had everything to do with Harvick, whose firebrand ways are not unlike his predecessor at Richard Childress Racing.

Harvick has always been popular in Texas judging by fan club membership and souvenir sales, but thinks his radio show may have boosted fans’ appreciation.

“I think people for so many years, I’ve just missed that connection with them,” he said of the benefit of his gig on Tuesdays. “Really, it’s my fault, just in letting them see you’re a normal person, do normal things and love the sport.”

After a summer of doldrums fighting the Toyota onslaught led by Truex and Busch, the Ford team of SHR has come to life. The team has left behind the attitude that the Camrys have too much aerodynamic downforce on the intermediate 1.5-mile tracks to be able to beat them. SHR driver Kurt Busch broke Stewart’s relatively ancient pole record in qualifying with a lap of 200.915 mph on the 1.5-mile Texas track’s high banks. Harvick won the first stage and then closed the deal when it counted.

Always one to look to make adjustments such as with his newfound radio passion off the track, Harvick made a split-second re-calibration when it counted. He passed Truex on the outside in Turn 1 on a day when drivers had tried to hug the white line at the inside edge of the banking like it was a lifeline.

“He got a little bit loose, I slid up the racetrack, was able to have plenty of grip when I slid up the racetrack, put the throttle down,” Harvick said. “I was able to get beside him.” It was indeed the move of a determined driver in a high-performance mental zone. Harvick then stretched his lead over the final nine laps.

At one point earlier, Harvick got close to Truex bobbled himself in Turns 1 and 2, then had to chill for a lap or two before closing up again.

“The last 50 laps were definitely entertaining from the inside of the car just because of the fact that I had to get by (Joey Logano), I had to get by (Denny Hamlin),” he said. “Really lapped traffic helped me get to (Truex) quicker than I probably should have just because of the fact that he got held up a little bit. That allowed me to start seeing where his weaknesses were, adapted a little bit to the things that he was struggling with, trying to get into Turn 1 and to the center of the corner. I felt like that was his weakness.”

Everybody at the Texas facility, not just his fans, was keenly aware of the impact of Harvick’s come-from-behind victory. It not only vaulted him into the championship round at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, but also it confirmed his Ford can beat the Toyotas in a 1.5-mile track configuration like the one in Florida. It wasn’t a surprise, said Rodney Childers, crew chief for Harvick’s Fords.

“I feel like over the last two months we have done a good job of not settling, making our cars better, going racing,” Childers said. “The (heck) with everybody else. We need to worry about ourselves. If we give him the right tools on the racetrack, he’s going to win races with it.”


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