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Winston Cup Series




Saturday, August 2

Harvick not too late to chase Kenseth
By Jerry Bonkowski
Special to ESPN.com

Jerry Bonkowski INDIANAPOLIS -- He may be a distant 534 points behind series leader Matt Kenseth, but mark it down: Kevin Harvick may very well have kicked his quest for the Winston Cup championship into high gear on Saturday.

Harvick earned his first pole of the season at one of the toughest places to do so, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Sunday's Brickyard 400. What's more, he turned the trick with a track record speed of 184.343 mph -- obliterating Tony Stewart's mark of 182.960 mph set last year -- just .018 of a tick quicker than the man he'll share the front row with on race day, Ryan Newman.

As an aside, after taking the top spot for Sunday's event, Harvick hopped out of his No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet and into his No. 6 IROC Pontiac Firebird, finishing second in the season finale of the four-race IROC series to race-winner Jimmie Johnson.

Honestly, it's not too surprising what Harvick did at IMS; rather, it's a continuation of how he has quietly and efficiently been one of the most successful drivers over the last six weeks. In his last five starts, he has two top-three finishes, along with a ninth-place, 12th and 17th-place showing.

And if you add in Saturday's pole-winning effort, he's qualified twice in the top five and three other times in the top 11 in his last six pole-chasing efforts.

"That was an awesome lap," Harvick said of the run that put him at the head of the pack for Sunday's race. "I saw Bill (Elliott) and Ryan (Newman) put up some pretty good (qualifying) laps, so we knew we had to go for it. This is a brand new car and a new body package, so we came with a good piece. So far, so good."

Heading into Saturday, it had been more than a year since Harvick had either earned a pole (Daytona, July 6, 2002, his first career Cup pole) or won a race (Chicago, July 14, 2002). Still, the Bakersfield, Calif., native has been putting things together quite nicely of late. It was only a matter of time before Harvick pulled a pole or win out of the No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet. A guy can't keep knocking on the door without eventually coming away with a significant prize.

Saturday, Harvick finally did that. Now the question becomes whether he can successfully tame the always-tough 2.5-mile IMS layout over 160 laps on Sunday.

"Indianapolis Motor Speedway has as much, if not more history than Daytona (International Speedway)," Harvick said. "It's not only a place you want to win at, but it's a challenge to make your car run fast. There's a lot of pride that goes into that race. If you can win it, you've done something not a lot of people have.

"Anything you do here means a lot to me. Obviously there's a lot of history with open-wheel and stock cars. It's an important place."

And that importance could become even more magnified if Harvick continues mounting a second-half challenge to Kenseth. He has a lot of ground to cover and only 16 races left, but something tells me we've only just begun to see Harvick's best. He's got a lot more waiting in reserve for the right time -- and that time is right now.

Heading into last year's Brickyard, Tony Stewart was also in seventh-place in the standings, just like Harvick is heading into Sunday's race. But there is one significant difference: Stewart was only 256 points behind then-series leader Sterling Marlin, while Harvick is more than twice that amount behind Kenseth. Still, Stewart managed to mount enough of a second-half season rally to go on and win his first Winston Cup championship.

There's a lot of Stewart's personality in Harvick. He can be brash at times, even flippant, but at just 27 years old he's also one of the most talented young race car drivers in Winston Cup. Also like Stewart, Harvick's racing roots spread quite deep and wide, including stints in the Busch and Craftsman Truck series, as well as late models and go-karts, among other racing genres.

Along the way, he's collected a ton of honors, just like Stewart did while on the road to last year's title. Harvick was the Busch Series Rookie of the Year in 2000, followed by Winston Cup's top rookie the following season. He also won the Busch Series championship in 2001 as part of perhaps one of the greatest ironman performances NASCAR racing has seen, completing the full Winston Cup and Busch Series, as well as having one start in the Craftsman Truck Series, giving him a record of 70 starts in just one season over three very different forms of racing.

Granted, Harvick had a miserable sophomore season last year, finishing 21st in the standings after an incredible ninth-place run as a rookie in 2001.

But thus far this season, Harvick has seemingly shown a greater maturity and restraint -- perhaps he learned a thing or two watching Stewart's costly foibles and outbursts last season.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of this season is the fact Harvick has been in the Winston Cup top-10 standings for 17 of the first 20 weeks (and he was a not-too-distant 11th in two of the other three weeks).

What's more, Harvick has had just one finish lower than 30th (36th at Darlington in March), and only four finishes between 25th and 29th. On the positive flipside, he's had two runner-up finishes (Talladega and New Hampshire two weeks ago), a third-place showing at Sonoma and a fourth-place outing in the season opening Daytona 500, as well as three other top-10 finishes.

Harvick has been ranked seventh for the last three weeks. He's managed to finish every race this season, compared to six DNFs last year. And after Saturday's pole-winning effort, one can't help but think that he's poised to make a significant statement not only Sunday, but for the rest of this season.

Kenseth may have a comfortable lead in the standings today, but if Harvick continues getting closer in his rearview mirror, he's going to make Kenseth very uncomfortable.

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@Yahoo.com.

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