Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Odds are in Kevin Harvick's corner for Sprint Cup title

BLACKSBURG -- Late in Tuesday's Virginia Tech football news conference, a reporter asked coach Frank Beamer - a longtime NASCAR fan - whom he liked to win the Sprint Cup championship.

Beamer paused for a second, then responded.

"I like Kevin Harvick," he said.

Everyone laughed.

Harvick, after all, was sitting in the fifth row.

In a rare multisport presser, Beamer had long since hit overdrive on the politically correct highway. It's Arkansas State week, you see, and if we didn't understand those 25.5-point underdogs were a "dangerous crowd" before, we do now. Beamer later clarified that he's a guy who roots for the Virginia-based drivers, which would make Denny Hamlin his hopeful.

But Beamer might have been right the first time.

Harvick's got a real good shot at this thing.

Vegas lists Harvick's odds to win the Cup title at 7-to-1, but they're better than that. The 35-year-old Californian enters the Chase with momentum - he won last week at Richmond - and, more importantly, perspective.

After a near miss in 2010, he knows what it takes to win.

"We had the best average finish, but that didn't get it done," said Harvick, who led the points going into last year's Chase before win bonuses bumped him down. "We averaged a 5.8 finish over 10 weeks. That didn't get it done. So we came back and we analyzed the two biggest things we felt like we needed to do in the Chase.

"We needed to make our pit crew better, and we've got to win a race or two in the Chase. That's the bottom line. You've got to have the points. You've got to have the bonus points."

So expect to see an aggressive Harvick when the circuit heads to Chicagoland Speedway this week. He's never won a Cup title, but he enters the Chase tied with Kyle Busch for the points lead.

"Every Chase takes on its own characteristics," he said. It's just like going to a football game - you never really know how the day's going to go, but the good teams always find a way to get it done in the end."

A Cup regular since 2001, Harvick finished third in the standings last year behind Jimmie Johnson and Hamlin. And he's long known what it takes to survive in the sport; he started racing go-karts at age 5, and the challenges only got greater from there.

"We couldn't afford to race, but we still raced somehow," said Harvick, referring to his teenage years. "My mom worked at the local elementary school as a secretary, my dad was a firefighter, and somehow we were at the local racetrack spending money racing cars. So we raced off what we won every week.

"If you tore your car up early in the race: A. You didn't win very much that weekend for prize money, and B. You probably didn't get to race next week, because you didn't win enough money. So I was always taught to take care of everything that I had until it was time to go, and then you make the sacrifices that you have to, to try to win the race and do what you have to do from there."

That philosophy served Harvick well in the spring, when he won at Martinsville Speedway after leading only six laps, including the last four. He won the Coca-Cola 600 after leading just two laps, taking over the top spot for good when Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of fuel while leading on the last corner of the final lap.

Earlier, Harvick beat Johnson on a last-lap pass at Auto Club Speedway.

Yes, Harvick knows how to close. Now it's just a matter of doing it over a 10-race stretch.

"These last 10 weeks are not like the first 26," he said. "It's time to go. You round up all your friends on the plane with you, and you get off the plane as a group, and you get back on as a group. You don't really care what happens in between and who gets in the way. It's trying to win a championship now."

His team's got as good a chance as any this year. Just ask Beamer, who knows a dangerous crowd when he sees one.

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