From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, March 8, 2010
AS A ROOKIE IN THE NATIONWIDE (THEN BUSCH) SERIES IN 2000, Kevin Harvick almost always had a goofy, gee-whiz grin on his face, which prompted his crew to call him Happy. The nickname stuck. But during the last two years the tag was an ironic joke in the NASCAR garage because Harvick, who didn't win a Cup race in '08 or '09, was a surly frown machine. Midway through last season the man who had won 11 Cup races and twice made the Chase was so upset with the poor quality of his race cars—he finished 19th in points—that he strongly hinted he would leave his team, Richard Childress Racing, when his contract expired at the end of the '10 season.
But there he was on the afternoon of Feb. 28 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, grinning as if he'd just hit the jackpot. Moments earlier he'd finished second behind Jimmie Johnson. Starting 34th Harvick had steadily drove through the field and showed as much straight-line speed—his hallmark this year—as any other driver. Three races into the schedule Harvick has three top 10s and sits atop the Sprint Cup standings. He has been, without question, the surprise of the young season. "Last year was pretty much a lost season for our organization," says Harvick, 34. "But we made big changes, and they all seemed to work."
Harvick's problems last year actually developed before the 2009 season. That winter RCR built a fleet of new cars for its four drivers, but once the cars rolled onto the track, they had significant flaws. "It was everything: the chassis, the bodies, you name it," says Harvick's crew chief, Gil Martin. "So we had to build 40 new cars."
Harvick first drove the new design at Indianapolis in July 2009. On his first practice lap he knew that the problems had been solved. "I just sailed through the corner," he says. "I was like, Yes, we've got it!" Harvick finished sixth in that race—his best result in four months—and ended the season with two top fives in the last three starts.
This year Harvick has been a force. He had arguably the best car at both Daytona (he finished seventh after losing the draft late) and Fontana (where he was running down Johnson in the final moments but scrubbed the wall and came in second). "We're getting closer," he said. "We can run with Jimmie. I know we can, and he definitely knows we can."