Momentum is making Harvick happy again

LOUDON, N.H. -- The first glimpse of the Nextel Cup's new favorite son comes shortly after he climbs out of the car during qualifying at New Hampshire International Speedway.

Standing on pit road in front of a portable blue background, squinting under the bright sun, Kevin Harvick beams as TV cameras roll and microphones rock.

He's wearing a fashionably worn orange and brown ball cap that bears the logo of a candy confection, the colors matching his coveralls. His broad smile seems genuine. And why not? It's a beautiful day in the scenic foothills of rural Loudon. He's the hottest driver on four wheels. He's on top of the world.

Surrounded by his crew, car-side, Harvick temporarily steps away to wait for the final qualifying results to ensure the blistering time he just slapped down on the track sticks.

"Happy Harvick!" a fan yells from across the track, reviving a nickname that just won't go away.

These days, the nickname isn't ironic; the guy actually seems to be happy. But it hasn't always been sunshine and poses for Harvick.

Walls are never good to a driver. And Harvick is no exception.

First, there was the wall at Daytona that took Dale Earnhardt's life and thrust Harvick into a Cup ride, whether he was ready or not.

Then, accordingly, a wall of wailing fans, desperate to support whoever inherited Earnhardt's car -- no matter who it was -- turned their lonely eyes to Harvick seated in the black No. 29. He didn't let them down in that trying 2001 season, finishing ninth in the standings, earning Rookie of the Year honors and winning the Busch Series title.

But then, a wall of expectations arose in 2002. The team didn't get better, and Harvick followed that freshman season with a 21st-place showing. His rebound to fifth in points in 2003 was a renewed glimpse of what Harvick could do -- a win at the Brickyard 400, the second-biggest race of the season, the highlight.

The momentum didn't carry over to the next season, however. Word had it he was unhappy in the Richard Childress Racing stable. Word had it he was disliked in the garage and therefore was finding it difficult to find allies on the track. Word had it that, after back-to-back 14th-place finishes in 2004 and 2005, he would leave to start his own team.

Regardless, he stuck to it and signed a deal to return to RCR. These days, we find him in the driver's seat, in more ways than one. Brick by brick, he has built a stunning season of success. Many consider him the favorite to win the Cup title, and he's all but assured of winning his second Busch crown. Where did this come from? Why is this man smiling? Are you kidding?

"It seems like once you click as a team like we did in the Busch Series, you get that momentum and it's hard to stop that," former Busch champ Martin Truex Jr. told ESPN.com. "They're just doing everything right right now."

"Any time your cars are running good, you're winning races, you're competitive, it makes you happier," owner Richard Childress said. "This sport can keep you as low as you can get and put you as high as you can get.

"We're giving him better equipment and better cars; his team's jelling real good; and he's understanding the sport a lot more.

"I think he's happier, in general."

The new Harvick stormed to the lead of the Sylvania 300 on Sunday and barely glanced at his rearview, leading 196 laps. He dominated from start to finish.

Two moments stand out as evidence of his unassailable momentum:

On Lap 35, he absolutely pushed his way between teammate Jeff Burton and rookie Denny Hamlin to take the lead. Then, on a restart with fewer than 10 laps to go, he dusted Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, drivers with six Cup titles between them, to take the checkered flag despite worn tires. It was his fourth win of the season.

"The whole year has been phenomenal," Harvick said after the race. "If it ended right now, I think we would be happy and know we have really improved upon where we were in the past. Right now, we are having fun and trying to race to win. At the beginning of the year, nobody would have expected us to be sitting in this spot, so we have kind of run from the underdog role from day one. It has kind of been nice to fly under the radar and just have fun with it."

Further evidence Harvick is in this for the long run: no celebratory burnout after the race.

"Safety first," he said afterward.

Who is this guy?

Back on pit road after qualifying, friendlier walls appear. Harvick's back is turned to a red wall formed by a plastic poster advertising an award for the pole winner as he talks about having won the fifth pole of his career. And, on either side of this plastic barrier, standing on the concrete blocks of pit road, is a wall of adulating fans seeking a glimpse of the favorite to win the 2006 Chase for the Nextel Cup.

Ahead of him is a wall of TV cameramen and photographers, zoom lenses practically touching the tip of his proud chin. He's surrounded.

The TV scrum is followed by a radio scrum, which is followed by a walking radio interview, during which he says, "When you have momentum, you can overcome a lot of things."

Momentum is the wall breaker for the new Harvick. This week, he's riding high on a wonderful wave capped by two wins in two races, pushed atop the cresting standings for the first time in his Cup career.

"When you've got Ol' Mo on your side, you don't want to lose him," Childress said. "And he's got it right now."

Harvick carries his interview momentum into the press center, where he is greeted by Gordon and Kurt Busch, who finished 2-3 behind him, respectively, in qualifying. Gordon half-rises to shake Harvick's hand.

The media center is packed as Harvick pulls up a chair, 38 journalists, camera operators, photographers, sound technicians and p.r. people aiming faces and lenses at Harvick, anticipating. He acquits himself well, joking about his disregard for qualifying, talking about throwing a pie at Hamlin, asking a radio reporter to clarify whether it was the car or him she thought was hot.

"I think there is just a lot on the line right now. … Right now things are just going really well and when you have momentum on your side, it is something you can't buy. You can't necessarily figure out how you got it, where you got it, it is just one of those things. … I have been on both sides of this deal, I have ridden the wave as it is crashing down and as it is going up. I have learned to enjoy it while you can, to try to take advantage of what you have."

Then, it's back to a wall -- as he's leaving the press conference, a photographer asks him to pose against the white cinderblock. Harvick doesn't flinch, comfortable now with the wall's proximity, standing straight, pointing at the camera, smile at the ready, "Exit" sign above him pointing in perpendicular directions.

Then, in an instant, he's jumping into a chauffered golf cart. The supportive crowd of fans parts, slowly. He speeds through, on his way to yet another place and time.

Paul Grant is a senior coordinator at ESPN.com.