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Thompson in Turn 5: Kevin Harvick Needs to Mind His Ps & Qs

There is little doubt that Richard Childress Racing has bounced back in the past few years, reestablishing itself as one of the premier racing organizations in the world of NASCAR Nextel Cup. After nearly two decades of success – most notably with the late Dale Earnhardt behind the wheel of the No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet – the organization had seen a steady decline in their performance towards the end of the ’90s, even before the tragic death of the “Intimidator” in 2001. In the wake of Dale’s death, it was Kevin Harvick, his replacement, who’s accomplished the most for RCR on paper, winning two Busch Series titles while finishing in the top five in points twice. It’s a list of accomplishments that gets you thinking Harvick was the missing piece responsible for getting a fledgling organization back on track. But, in reality, that’s hardly the case – and in the wake of recent performances, Harvick’s now facing an uncomfortable scenario of being the only weak link in a rapidly forming playoff chain over at RCR.

Despite what the stat sheet says, it is not necessarily Harvick who is leading the charge back to respectability for RCR. It takes more than one to make a team – crafty veteran Jeff Burton and sophomore driver Clint Bowyer have every bit to do with the team’s recent turnaround. That’s not to say Harvick hasn’t performed well during this resurgence, but his teammates have made it abundantly clear through their on-track performances to date that they are not conceding the alpha-driver designation to Harvick anytime soon – even if the brash Californian believes he’s the one in control.

In fact, though the Bakersfield native started the season off with a bang – winning February’s Daytona 500 – the other two Childress drivers have kept pace with Harvick throughout the racing season. With two races remaining before the start of the 10-race Chase to the Nextel Cup, the even-tempered Burton and the sophomore sensation Bowyer are actually ahead of Harvick in the points standings. Ranked seventh, Burton and the No. 31 Chevrolet team are highest of the three, harboring no worries in becoming one of the top-12 drivers eligible to compete for the 2007 title. Behind him, Bowyer runs ninth with two top-five finishes and 11 top 10s to his credit. Very much like Burton, the pilot of the No. 07 Jack Daniel’s car has been a model of consistency, likewise flying under the media radar but seemingly in little danger of falling out of the Race to the Chase – he holds a 223-point advantage over 13th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. with two races left.

However, the often volatile Harvick, having slipped from his perch atop the driver standings since the season-opening race at Daytona, has performed only well enough to keep himself in the lower half of the top 10 throughout much of the season. And of the three Childress teams, it is Harvick’s that is in the most jeopardy of not becoming Chase eligible – he holds merely a 167-point cushion between his current 10th-place position in points and 13th in the rankings.

If there were to be a driver that “choked” under the pressure of making NASCAR’s version of a playoff format during the next two races, this six-year veteran of Cup racing seems to be the leading candidate to do so. At a time when teams want to start hitting on all cylinders, Harvick has simply faded away. In fact, in the last 10 races, he has scored only two top-five finishes (Chicagoland and Infineon) while posting sub-top 10 results five times. The driver’s lackluster performance during that time is certainly is not the kind of stellar performance that wins championships – or, at least, puts teams in serious contention for one. That Harvick has faltered in recent weeks has got to be worrisome for everyone involved with the No. 29.

It’s true that a betting man would be ill-advised to bet against Harvick still becoming Chase eligible, as time remains on his side – there’s just two races remaining before the playoffs begin. However, with finishing positions of 16th, 15th, 36th and 17th, respectfully, in the last four races, Harvick at best will be backing into the playoffs. And it is certainly conceivable, should his poor performances continue to decline, that he could see either Earnhardt Jr. or Ryan Newman overtake him for Chase eligibility.

Though RCR equipment has by and large been dependable for all three teams, Harvick has been a recipient of more than his share of bad luck in the way of accidents that were not of his making. It was just such an incident that started this August slump to begin with – some ill-fated contact with Tony Stewart in the closing laps at Indianapolis sent Harvick reeling to seventh by the race’s conclusion, a run that’s actually the No. 29’s best finish to date this month. Since then, the team’s shown limited signs of life, failing to lead a single lap over the duration of the last four events.

That’s not to say luck’s the only problem for Harvick. Going into California this Sunday and Richmond the following week, the 31-year-old can and should focus on controlling what is possible, and that is his emotions. The high-strung veteran should become more cognizant to the reality that he cannot shoot himself in the foot with any of the mischief that has checkered the recent past of his career.

Known to have a short fuse and a penchant for becoming physical with drivers in the past, Harvick sometimes shows an uncontrollable urge to right wrongs, real or imagined, against him with his bumper or fists. This would certainly be ill-advised at this juncture of the season – but he’s had no problem doing it anyway. In particular, his dissatisfaction with Juan Pablo Montoya – which became unmistakable at Watkins Glen earlier this month with a schoolyard pushing and shoving match – appears to be clouding his on-track judgment. Those antics may have seemed entertaining to some, but not everyone is laughing; the possible ramifications for further questionable behavior in the way of penalties levied by NASCAR could be devastating to any hopes of a championship run for the No. 29. That the reigning Busch Series champion cannot seem to let bygones be bygones seems evident in his sustained verbal lambasting of Montoya since their altercation over two weeks ago.

Due to Harvick’s roller coaster of emotional inconsistency, many give substantial credit for the overall improvement in performance at RCR to Burton, who is by nature a thoughtful and introspective professional that gives both peace of mind and stability to the program. Burton’s propensity to keep everyone on the same page proved an immense benefit in mentoring the relatively inexperienced Bowyer and, to a lesser extent, the more experienced Harvick. Burton’s value shows itself time and time again, most recently playing the role of model citizen at the Glen. It was there that the native Virginian, despite destroying his car in the same incident that was so upsetting to Harvick, extricated himself from his own wrecked racecar and intervened in his teammate’s escalating confrontation with Montoya – all before Harvick went and committed a foolish act. Without Burton’s calming, veteran presence, who knows how things would have turned out.

However, Burton was not able to prevent Harvick from spinning another longtime nemesis, Robby Gordon, on the last lap of Saturday night’s race at Bristol. Though there is no proof that the incident was intentional, given Harvick and Gordon’s rocky history and Harvick’s frustration with his poor-handling Chevrolet, it would be easy for one to assume that there may have been some forethought on Harvick’s part involving the contact that sent Gordon reeling out of control. Livid after the race, Gordon became a man looking for the right time to pay someone back – not exactly the type of scenario a potential Chaser needs. Guilty or not, this is no time for Harvick to be skirting along the fringes of acceptable behavior in the world of NASCAR.

Should Gordon make a bid for Harvick’s back bumper, the chances for the No. 29 to make the playoffs go from reasonable to problematic. And what a shame it would be to get eliminated from a chance to compete for the Nextel Cup due to an impulsive act that in no way reflected on Harvick’s driving ability, or his team’s capability to prepare Chaseworthy racecars for that matter. But the bottom line remains that as of now, Kevin Harvick desperately needs every point that he can earn from here to Richmond.

More importantly, he needs to stop giving them away.

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