When Kevin Harvick announced before the season started he was leaving Richard Childress Racing at year’s end, skeptics jumped all over his claim he and his team could remain competitive.
It would be hard-pressed to find many other than Harvick’s most diehard fans who thought and his No. 29 Chevrolet team could make the Chase.
Don’t even mention winning the championship.
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But this is NASCAR and anything is possible.
You need look no further than Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway to find the proof.
After 11 cautions, three red-flags (none for weather), a broken Fox network camera rope that damaged cars and injured 10 race fans and a wild late-race pit stop, Harvick emerged with his second 600 win in the last three seasons.
In a season in which he was largely written off as the lamest of ducks, Harvick is emerging as one of the few to challenge the dominance of Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing this season.
“This is something that (team owner Richard Childress) and I sat down and talked about as men and just have really focused on what's most important for our sponsors and the guys on this team and this organization,” said Harvick, who earned his second Sprint Cup Series win of the 2013 season.
“It’s too important to the people that put in hours and hours and hours, the people that put in millions and millions of dollars.”
“In a business world things happen, changes happen,” Childress said. “Like I told Kevin, I wish him the best of luck at the end of the year, but right now we got a job in front of us.
“I really feel that we got a chance to contend for the championship.”
Nearly halfway to the 26th race and the cutoff to make the Chase, Harvick is seventh in the series standings, 27 points ahead of 10th – the final spot guaranteed a Chase berth.
With two wins already, however, Harvick would be hard-pressed to miss the Chase even should he drop out of the Top 10.
He is one of just four drivers to win more than once this season (Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are the others) and there are two wild card spot available to drivers with the most wins.
“We’re focused on this year. We go out and race weektoweek, do the things that we do to try to win races, win a championship,” said Harvick, who has been widely reported to be moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
“Whatever happens in the future, we’ll work on some other time. Right now we’re working on winning next week’s race.”
Harvick’s victory didn’t become plausible until late in the race.
Debris from Johnson’s car brought out a caution on Lap 385 of 400. Kasey Kahne, then the leader and the most dominant car in the race, elected not to pit, believing several others would stay out as well with so little time left in the race.
Wrong. Every other lead-lap car dove to pit road, leaving Kahne briefly riding alone behind the pace car on the track.
Harvick, who took two fresh tires, was the first off pit road and lined up second next to Kahne on the restart on Lap 390.
It took less than a lap for Harvick to power around Kahne and into the lead, which he held the final 11 laps.
“We definitely needed to get tires at that point,” said Harvick’s crew chief, Gil Martin.
“When (Kahne) didn’t brake to come down pit road, I felt like that gave us a chance to have equal cars with them because they were very strong all night long.”
Kahne finished second, Kurt Busch was third, Denny Hamlin was fourth and Joey Logano was fifth.
“It was definitely our race to lose, especially those last 100 laps. We just thought that some of the guys would stay out,” Kahne said.
“I think there were three cars that just pit within the last couple laps, five or six laps, just felt like they'd stay out and that would be a big enough buffer to someone who had two or four tires that we could get away.
Johnson, the series points leader, finished 22nd. He holds a 32-point advantage over second place Carl Edwards with 14 races remaining until the 12-driver Chase field is set.