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Harvick needs Brickyard push again

So much for the defending champion riding a wave of momentum into the Brickyard 400 on Sunday.

Then again, Kevin Harvick entered last year's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway fresh off a 12th-place finish at Pocono. So it wasn't as if he was a favorite heading into the event, at least not until he put his GM Goodwrench Chevrolet on the pole at the nation's most historic racetrack.

But once Harvick had overhauled Jamie McMurray on a late-race restart, the next stop was victory lane, a stop that energized his Richard Childress Racing team for weeks to come. A fifth at Watkins Glen came next, followed by three straight runnerup finishes.
It's the type of streak Harvick desperately needs to go on, especially after a blown engine left him 32nd at Pocono and dropped him to 10th in points. The finish equaled his worst of the season -- when he was seven laps down at Atlanta -- and marked the first time he failed to finish a race in 59 events.

No driver since NASCAR's modern era began in 1972 had been running at the finish in as many as 58 straight events, so Harvick's streak was bound to end sooner or later. Now that it has, he said forgetting about it is the only option.

"As far as we're concerned, what happened last weekend is well behind us," Harvick says. "All we can do now is try and win at Indy for the second time in a row and start a new streak. We've always run really well at the Brickyard. I think the worst we've finished has been 11th in the three years that we've been there. It's a good race for us, especially at this stage in the points race, and it's exciting for us to go back knowing that we've won there before."

The points race would be a lot more comfortable from Harvick's standpoint had he finished at Pocono. With six races left before NASCAR's "Chase for the Nextel Cup" begins, he holds just a 40-point lead over Jeremy Mayfield for the 10th, and final, spot in the playoff-like format.

If this trip to Indy sparks a run of races like he reeled off last year, a spot in the top 10 will likely be a formality. But if the team's inconsistency continues, Harvick may well take his battle with those just behind him in points down to the wire.

Of course, the ultra-competitive Harvick wouldn't want it any other way. Sure he might prefer a comfortable cushion such as Jimmie Johnson's, but Harvick's almost always at his best when things seem stacked against him. Now that he's got to fight to secure a spot, it will surprise no one if his team finally finds the consistency needed to go on a roll.

"If you go conservative, the guys behind you are going to be wide open," Harvick says. "I don't think you can do that. Usually you get yourself in more trouble when you're on defense instead of offense. You just have to go about your business and do what you have to do to win the race."

Then again, the one thing Harvick hasn't done this year is win, something he's done in each of his previous Cup campaigns. It's not that he hasn't had the opportunities; just that one thing or another has kept him from cashing in on them. A little consistency would go a long way right now for the 28-year-old native of Bakersfield, Calif.

"This is a race team that's been really consistent. We've made some mistakes this year and for some reason we just haven't been one of those 'win a lot of races' race teams," Harvick says. "We've been in position the end of last year and even this year, but we just haven't capitalized on it. It's not that we haven't put ourselves in position; we just haven't capitalized on a lot of situations. We all want to win, but it's just hard to put it all together."

Rest assured, Harvick's not the only one frustrated by the lack of victories. RCR was once among the best of the best, but the three-car operation hasn't reached the winner's circle since Robby Gordon turned the trick at Watkins Glen last August, just a week after Harvick's Brickyard victory.

At the time, it appeared RCR was going to go on a roll, but it never happened. Robby Gordon's had his moments in the No. 31 Chevy, but the No. 30 team never hit its stride with rookie Johnny Sauter and now Dave Blaney is hoping to stabilize things for a team facing an uncertain sponsorship future for 2005.

A victory by any of the teams would go a long way right now, but Harvick's team is the lone one with a chance at the championship. Childress naturally hopes things improve in a hurry.

"We've beat ourselves on several occasions," Childress says. "I thought the car has run pretty well at a lot of racetracks -- I don't think we've been as strong as we were last year at this stretch, but we keep working to turn that corner. We had a real good car at Sears Point and a real good run at Loudon. We've got some good racetracks coming up ... we'll just have to see (what happens)."

Crew chief Todd Berrier says the team simply hasn't been as solid as it needs to be. Knowing that and changing it, though, aren't always that easy. He said that when the cars have been good, either a bad pit stop, the wrong chassis adjustment or an ill-timed caution has ruined what could have been better finishes.

As it is, Harvick has just three top-five finishes thus far, highlighted by third-place efforts at Bristol and Talladega. Then again, Berrier knows there have been days when the car wasn't great and Harvick still salvaged a decent finish. But to remain in the top 10 after 26 races, things need to improve quickly.

"More so than not, we need to be in position (to win) more often than we have been," Berrier said.

The good news for Harvick is that he's finished on the lead lap in each of his three Indy starts. Confidence is a given when he arrives at the 2.5-mile track and he knows what it takes to be successful there.

"Track position. You obviously have to have a good car, but you have to play your pit strategy right and put yourself in position for that last run," Harvick says. "Every year that I've been there that's how it's worked out. It's one of those things where you need four (fresh) tires on your car, but you also have to put yourself in the front of the pack so you don't get stuck in a big glob."

Backing up the most meaningful win of his Cup career is obviously Harvick's goal. While his first win -- just three starts after taking over the ride following Dale Earnhardt's February 2001 death -- was huge, winning at Indy was something else for a driver who grew up following fellow Bakersfield native Rick Mears, an Indy car legend with four Indianapolis 500 wins to his credit.

"It's the biggest thing I've done in my career," Harvick says. "Obviously you can't win your first race twice. That's a big moment. To do what we did last year and know the aspirations I had as a kid and to grow up and actually go to Indianapolis and win at the Brickyard -- not in an Indy car but in a stock car -- is probably almost unrealistic when you think about it. When you grow up and you want to do something, nine times out of 10 you don't get to do it that way. I'm pretty lucky to be able to do what I do and to bring back a lot of thoughts and dreams and things. To actually get to do it at Indy is really cool for me."

Now, though, an Indy win would simply be a means to an end as securing a shot at the first Nextel Cup championship is a priority. Harvick knows how he'll approach the "Chase" if he qualifies and it's pretty much the way he has to view the next six races.

"We'll definitely be on the offense. The last 10 races fit right into our style," Harvick says. "We've just got to make sure we get to that point and then we'll be in good shape."

Getting there, as they say, is half the fun. At least it is when you're running like Jimmie Johnson has been and have a large cushion between now and Richmond. When you're Harvick and on the proverbial bubble, things aren't nearly as much fun. Just ask crew chief Berrier.

"We're still on the defense instead of offense," Berrier says. "That's not the position anybody likes to be in. We just have to be a little more solid the rest of this run and build some momentum for the following 10 [races]."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.