continued his RCR team's resurgence as he roared to the Chase lead with a
dominating New Hampshire win
minutes before the engines fired on Sunday afternoon at New Hampshire
International Speedway to start the 2006 Chase for the Nextel Cup, Kevin
Harvick was lolling around pit road, pressing the flesh, posing for pictures
with fans and flashing a toothy smile. Harvick, who two days before had
captured the pole position for the Sylvania 300, was reveling in his status as
the driver to beat at the 1.058-mile flat track.
Just four hours
later, after Harvick had won the race with a car so dominating that it seemed
to have an extra gear, his mood was even better. For the first time in his
six-year Cup career, Harvick had seized the points lead. "Our entire
program at RCR [ Richard Childress Racing] has come an incredibly long way in
the last year," said the 30-year-old Harvick late on Sunday as he waded
through a swarm of Sharpie-wielding fans in the infield. "We're all on the
same page, and it's really showing right now."
In fact, the
resurgence of RCR, the onetime powerhouse team that catapulted Dale Earnhardt
Sr. 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 a
35-point lead in the standings over rookie Denny Hamlin, who finished fourth at
New Hampshire. Harvick's teammate Jeff Burton, who like Harvick qualified for
his 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-place
run 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 when
the team made major improvements in the engine and aero departments," says
Kevin Collins, an engineer on Harvick's team. "We're also sharing as much
information between the three Childress teams as any organization in
Indeed, at each
race 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 all
the details of each car's setup. The three teams then are in constant contact
once 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, "and
it's obviously working."
So is the
relationship between Harvick and Burton. During his first five seasons on the
Cup circuit, Harvick was as temperamental as any driver in the series. He was
suspended for a race in 2002 after intentionally wrecking a driver in the
Craftsman Truck Series, and he occasionally even lit into his team during
meetings. But after Burton arrived at RCR from Roush Racing in August 2004, he
became Harvick's mentor. His presence has helped Harvick become a more
even-keeled driver. "Jeff has been through a lot, and he's someone I can
talk to and bounce things off," Harvick said late on Sunday. "He's been
a huge part of RCR's success."
A few moments
later Harvick hopped onto a golf cart. As he zoomed off, the broad smile on
Harvick's face cast a new light on the ironic nickname he was stuck with years
ago but that now could honestly be said to describe his state of mind:
? Get more NASCAR
analysis from Lars Anderson at SI.com/racing.