Sunday, July 11, 2004

Harvick wants more Chicagoland magic

Driver, 10th in standings, has won 2 of track's 3 races

By Nancy Armour
The Associated Press

JOLIET, Ill. - Kevin Harvick is in the right place at the perfect time.

He's dropped to 10th place in the NASCAR Nextel Cup standings after just one top-10 finish in his last seven races. With only nine races to go until the championship chase starts, Harvick would love to get on a roll to solidify his spot.

"We're kind of on the bubble point there," he said. "We've got to make sure we really stay on top of our game and do everything that we can do to keep that cushion behind us as much as we can. It'll be tough. There's a lot of good cars and somebody could go on a hot streak here.

"Hopefully, it's us."

Fortunately for him, the NASCAR series has rolled into the Chicagoland Speedway for the Tropicana 400 on Sunday. Harvick has dominated the race, winning the first two and running second last year until he ran out of gas. His two victories here make up half his career total.

He also holds the track record for most laps led overall (188) as well as laps led in a race (113 out of 267). He's the only driver to lead in all three races.

"It's just one of those places where we unloaded and everything went good, and we've had a lot of confidence ever since," Harvick said. "Any place that we can go right now where we have a good history is good for us."

Harvick qualified 17th, running a lap at 184.729 mph Friday. That's more than two mph slower than pole winner Jeff Gordon, but don't read too much into that. No one who started in the top five has won at Chicagoland yet, and Harvick won the 2002 race after starting 32nd.

"I've always struggled a little bit in qualifying, for whatever reason, but we always race really good," he said, shrugging off Friday's results.

Harvick has traditionally started slow, picking up momentum when the temperatures rise, and this year has been more of the same. Though he finished third at Bristol and Talladega, he tailed off with a 25th-place finish at Richmond and a 23rd at Charlotte.

He dropped to 10th in the points standing after finishing 20th at Pocono, and has stayed there since. He's 450 points behind points leader Jimmie Johnson, a gap so big he would have had no shot at the Nextel Cup title in years past.

But things are different this year. NASCAR is resetting the field with 10 races to go, and all drivers in the top 10 - and any others within 400 points of the leader - will run for the championship.

Instead of drivers building a big, early lead and running away with the title, momentum will likely determine this year's champion.

"Whoever is peaking in those final 10 will be the champion," Johnson said. "It may not be the guy who has led the points all year or who has had the best cumulative points for the season. My goal is to pace ourselves, still be competitive, win races, lead the points, but make sure we peak again when the final 10 really counts."

Johnson has already hit his peak once this year, winning two races and finishing second in another two during a five-race span. He's also finished in the top five in his last four races, including a second to Gordon at Daytona.

Gordon is the driver with the momentum right now, winning his last two races and four straight poles.

"I hope we can have this type of run in the last 10," Gordon said. "That's what it's going to take to win the championship, and it's what we're doing right now. Right now, it doesn't matter if we do this other than staying in the top 10.

"And having a lot of fun."

Harvick wouldn't mind having some fun himself. And the Chicagoland Speedway is the perfect place to start.

"We've had three really good years," he said. "Hopefully, we can have a fourth."

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