Kevin Harvick talks Jimmie Johnson, mind games and more
Kevin Harvick, 4th in driver points, co-leads Sprint Cup with three wins in 2011
He warns not to underestimate Jimmie Johnson and reveals how he stays upbeat
Also: Travis Pastrana tempers expectations for his Nationwide Series debut
Kevin Harvick was buttoning up his last few business obligations of the week on Wednesday, managing the empire via cellphone from the car before a rare weekend off and some down time at his beach house on Kiawah Island, S.C.
With just seven races remaining until the Chase for the Championship begins, Harvick co-leads NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series with three wins, which would move him from his current position of fourth to the top of the standings when drivers are reseeded for the 10-race playoff.
The 35-year-old said while his team learned much from its bid for a first title last season, work remains to make the team a title contender again. That said, he's prepared to deal with anyone who tries to get in his way.
SI.com: What is the state of Kevin Harvick at this point in the season?
Harvick: I think we know things we need to do that we needed to do a little bit better last year. I think we prepared for the Chase well last year. I think we have a plan to prepare the cars for the Chase this year already in place. The hard thing about this year is, with the three wins we've been at for a while, I don't think we've had the consistency we had last year leading up to this point in the season. But we've taken a lot more risks, gambled a lot more trying to win races because really that's all that matters, staying in the top 10 and winning races. We've taken a lot more risk and haven't had a lot of it pay off. We know we can't race this way when we get into the Chase. But right now we have a lot of room to gamble.
SI.com: Is Jimmie Johnson more vulnerable now compared to last year, considering some of the problems he's experienced?
Harvick: That's hard to say. Everybody said the same thing last year ... The guy that's won the last five championships, I think you'd be a fool to say you're going to go out and beat him. Until somebody does, you have to prove it. But we beat them last year a lot of times and we beat them this year a lot of times, so it's just a matter of putting it together week in and week out and really making it all add up in the end in those last 10 weeks.
SI.com: Your team has been masterful in converting negative energy into positive results, especially last season. Coming into Talladega in spring of 2010, your contract renewal talks were heavily discussed and then sponsor Shell-Pennzoil leaves. Somehow, you still win the race. There are many other examples. How do you do it?
Harvick: On the team side of it, that's the great thing about this team. I think everyone understands how I am in the car and I carry my emotions on my sleeve and [crew chief] Gil [Martin] would rather me just get mad and get it off my chest and move on than hold it inside and try not to say anything. He'd rather me just get wound up, and they know when I get wound up, things are going to happen. I just have a team that's a bunch of racers and [they] understand who I am. Last year, Talladega, was probably one of the best moments of the year because you could take that weekend -- and we all knew what was coming from the sponsorship side -- and you could rub it right in their face and say 'Good luck going forward' and we're going to move on. I think for us it worked out really well. It couldn't have worked out any better. There's always somewhere to find some motivation off something that's not going good or proving something wrong. It's always fun to turn around and see their reaction when you do exactly what they don't think you can.
SI.com: You became quite the mind game practitioner last season. Is that something you deploy to distract the competition or just a manifestation of your personality?
Harvick: For us, it's really just about doing what's best for us. Sometimes it's not going to sit well with other people and I think when somebody does something I don't think is right toward RCR, even if it's not toward our car, as it was in Dover last year, it's still somebody's responsibility to let other people know as a company, we don't appreciate it, that's not how we're going to be treated and you're not going to talk about RCR that way or push us around on the racetrack. If you're going to talk about us or say something or do something to us, we're going to push back. It's usually going to be to a point where you don't like it. It's one of those deals where I believe in the people I have around me and they believe in me and we're going to do what we have to do to do what's best for this company.
There has been a different winner in the last eight Nationwide Series races.
Travis Pastrana's media/sponsor battalion is holding a contest to name his X Games-Nationwide-X Games odyssey next weekend as he makes his debut in a top-three NASCAR series while still maintaining his extreme sports presence, thanks to the miracle of modern avionics.
Our suggestion: Double Track Flip, a homage to the freestyle motocross move he immortalized at the 2008 X Games.
Pastrana, who exudes confidence when performing his highly publicized stunts on his Nitro Circus show, has more tempered expectations for his Nationwide debut. That likely stems from the fact those seemingly deadly stunts have been schemed, tested and vetted to perfection before ever being filmed, a safety net he lacks in driving a race car.
"I'm going to try to go out to Indy like I did at Irwindale [Calif., where he finished sixth in the Toyota All-Star Showdown] and really don't have expectations," he said. "I have to drive the car the best that I can drive it without overdriving it. Honestly, judging off of the K&N races, we're going to be mid-to-back of the pack. If we get a top-20, I shouldn't say happy because no driver is ever happy unless they are on top of the podium, but that would be really good for us. I would like to stay on the lead lap and I think that's going to be a difficult goal. That means we'll have to keep the car together. I have a tendency to overdrive the cars and they said that at this track it's really hot and it has a tendency to wear the tires out really quickly. If I drive like I normally drive, I might be competitive for 10 laps and then I'm going to be five laps down before we go to the first pit. I'll need to slow myself down to be more competitive."