Harvick, others, giving JJ nothing
LOUDON, N.H. -- The firesuit has been replaced by shorts and a T-shirt as Kevin Harvick, barefoot with his legs crossed, relaxes on a couch in his motor coach.
"Everybody wrote us off at the beginning of the year," he says with a smile as qualifying for Sunday's Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway wraps up. "Now here we are and it's like, 'Oh, wait a second!'"
Harvick quietly is having the best year of his career, with two wins -- four if you count the non-point Sprint Unlimited and one of the two qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway.
Had he gotten a top-5 in each of those races, as his car was capable of, he would be almost deadlocked for the points lead with Johnson, whose average finish is 8.9, instead of 73 back.
He easily could win at New Hampshire, where he won in 2006 and has 12 top-10s.
It's not what many thought possible when reports surfaced late last season that Harvick would move from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Lame-duck drivers aren't supposed to be championship contenders.
Maybe that's why nobody is talking about Harvick the way they do Johnson and Kenseth, tied for the series lead in wins with four each and first and third in laps led.
But we should be.
Harvick has nothing to lose. There is no pressure because there were no high expectations outside of those he and his team put on themselves to succeed. If he struggled, everyone would say it was expected because he's on his way out.
But there is an even bigger reason few are talking about Harvick as championship material.
"We're not flash," he says.
Flash is what Johnson and the No. 48 team have displayed the past six weeks, winning twice and leading a gaudy 565 of 1,298 (43.5 percent) laps. Flash is what Kenseth did in a five-race stretch from Kansas to Charlotte, winning twice and leading 574 of 1,632 (35.1 percent) laps.
Harvick has led only 34 laps all season, 28 of those at Charlotte, where he won.
But he always seems to be lurking at the end, which is what it takes to be a contender in the 10-race Chase and is why some call him "The Closer."
"I've been paying attention," Kenseth says. "He's been solid every week. They haven't been the flashiest as far as qualifying and leading all the laps, but Kevin is always there when it counts.
"I don't see any reason why they wouldn't be a contender all the way down the stretch."
There are a lot of other drivers who shouldn't be forgotten eight races before the Chase, either. Clint Bowyer doesn't have a victory, but he's second in points with an average finish of 10.3.
Carl Edwards has a win and a 12.0 average finish, and he proved two years ago when he went into the final lap of the final race with the points lead that he can contend.
Reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski may be 13th in points, but he's starting first on Sunday and was ranked only 10th a year ago leaving New Hampshire.
Although this might be Johnson's championship to lose, as Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon says, there's a lot of racing left.
"History shows that … this is a race-to-race scenario," three-time champion Tony Stewart says. "Everything can change in a week and can change in the matter of a month. This has always been a technology-based sport, and they [Johnson's team] definitely have things going right, right now. I don't see it changing and taking a turn for the worst, by any means."
But, as Stewart showed in 2011, when he came into the Chase winless and ninth in points, things can change in a hurry.
"I wouldn't be putting anybody's name on the trophy yet," says Stewart, who won five races in the 2011 Chase to win the title in a tiebreaker. "It's way too early for that.
"There are a lot of organizations that can get things going before the Chase."
Harvick already has it going, only he has done it with little fanfare. This season, in a way, has been a microcosm of his November race at Phoenix last season.
Remember? Harvick was slow in practice and qualified 19th. Then the news broke that he was going to SHR in 2014 and it was as if all the pressure had been lifted.
He won the race and finished eighth the next week in the season finale. Take away the two plate races where he was wrecked this year and he hasn't had a finish worse than 14th since news of his move broke.
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"We've got that consistency back that we lacked the last couple of years," says Harvick, who will take primary sponsor Budweiser with him to SHR. "We've got [eight] weeks now to work on the speed part of it to really keep up with the 48."
But even Harvick admits Johnson has the team to beat.
"I always used to tell my teams this, is if you are comfortable winning races, somebody is going to come along and beat you and then you are going to get behind," Harvick says. "It seems like they win races but they are constantly trying to get better and they constantly succeed in getting better."
Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus coming to the media center Friday said it all. He came in to explain the mistake that caused the 48 to be low in inspection after qualifying. Why? So he wouldn't have to waste time on a short Saturday at the track answering those questions.
"They earn every bit of success they get because they work harder than most people, if not everybody, down to every nut and bolt," says Dale Earnhardt Jr., who shares a shop with the 48 team. "They just work extremely hard on every area that possibly could be of any advantage.
"Physically, Jimmie is in the best shape of anybody in the field. The guy runs 13, 15 miles a day. It's ridiculous."
But in the same breath, Earnhardt says, "They're beatable. Nobody is bulletproof."
And consider, the points leader after 18 races has won the title only once -- Johnson in 2006 -- since the Chase began in 2004.
So for all those screaming that Johnson is ruining the season with his dominance -- as emails and tweets indicated after his win last week at Daytona -- don't forget the rest of the field.
Don't forget Harvick.
"It's been good to fly under the radar and focus on what we're doing without stirring everything up," Harvick says. "We're not going to be the car that is going to dominate a race, but nine out of 10 times, if we're around, usually we can make something happen."
Don't write him off.