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Harvick Keeps Tight Focus While Taking Points Lead To Kansas

NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship has headed west to Kansas Speedway, and one former Brickyard 400 winner has replaced a two-time Brickyard 400 winner at the top of the Sprint Cup standings heading into Round 4 in the Hollywood Casino 400.

Kevin Harvick, who drove to victory in the 2003 Brickyard 400 for Richard Childress Racing, is back as the points leader after last Sunday’s race at Dover, Del., scrambled the standings. Harvick finished seventh in the AAA 400 while two-time Brickyard winner Tony Stewart struggled to a 25th-place finish. That gave Harvick 2,122 points – the same as Carl Edwards -- but Harvick gets the position based on tie-breaker. Stewart dropped to third in the standings, nine points out of the lead.

As Harvick prepared for Friday’s practice at Kansas Speedway, he admitted he is the right frame of mind.

“We’re pretty relaxed; and have not done anything spectacular or anything really stupid yet, so we are just kind of middle of the road, grinding away, and that is really what you have to do at this point,” Harvick said. “I really feel like the second half of the races are better for our race team than the first half so, we will just keep doing what we’re doing.”

Harvick will start 14th in Sunday’s 400-mile race after qualifying at 173.617 mph Friday.

Harvick has said it’s not about winning; it’s about winning a championship, which means avoiding mistakes is more important than necessarily winning races for any driver in the Chase.

“I think you have seen a couple of guys totally shoot themselves in the foot, and you can take yourself out of this thing pretty easy, by making big mistakes or doing something that gets you a 30th-place finish,” Harvick said. “If you can avoid those things, you can keep yourself in it, and I think that was one good thing about winning four races at the beginning of the year; it gave us a few extra points to have a little bit of cushion here at the beginning. Not to say that we do not need to go out and win a race in the Chase or get more consistently in the top-five over the next few weeks, not to say that we do not need to do that, but it is a lot easier to take yourself out of it right now, than it is anything else by making mistakes that get you those 30 some place finishes. Just got to control the things that you can control and minimize the damage on the days on the days when things aren’t going well.”

Harvick is attempting to break three-time Brickyard 400 winner Jimmie Johnson’s streak of five straight Sprint Cup championships.

“We have two battles right now -- one is against ourselves and the other is against the guys in second in points,” Harvick said. “That is the way we look at it. I don’t care where Jimmie Johnson is; don’t care where anyone else is. We are concerned about the No. 99 (Edwards) and what we have to do to beat that particular car right now. Controlling the things that we can control as a race team, I feel like if we do that we are going to maximize the potential that we have on that particular day and not try to add more to it than is really necessary.”

Harvick has never won at Kansas Speedway, where he has just one top-five and four top-10 finishes in 11 starts. He was third in this race last year and 11th this past June but has three top-10 finishes in his last five Kansas starts.

Stewart, who won the Brickyard 400 in 2005 and 2007, is a two-time Kansas winner with victories in 2006 and 2009. Those two wins are included in his five top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 11 Kansas starts. He was fourth in this race last year and eighth in June with a streak of three-straight top 10 finishes at the 1.5-mile track.

“We aren’t looking at the points; we have seven races to go,” Stewart said Friday. “You look at how much it changed in the first two weeks, you can stare at the point standing until you are blue in the face, there is a long way to go still. Everybody is worrying way too much about the points and where everybody is at right now.

“As drivers, we’re all smart enough to go and do the math and figure out what it would have been. It’s just so much easier to know what it is. It’s not so much that it’s an illusion, it’s just easy to know where everybody is at and what that really means in the big picture.”

Stewart, from Columbus, Ind., qualified 23rd at 172.933 mph.

By finishing second to Dover winner Kurt Busch, Johnson made the biggest gain of any driver in the Chase, leaping from 10th to fifth in the standings. He is just 13 points out of the lead and is making his run at a record-extending sixth-straight Cup title to go along with his Brickyard 400 wins in 2006, 2008 and 2009.

“We’re close,” Johnson said. “To not be a smartass on you, we’re 13 points away from being that guy, and that’s really what my goal is and that’s where I want to be. I think that people argue the point is it good to be under the radar or be out in front, in a 10-race format if you’re the guy setting the way and you continue to put distance between yourself and second, you gain an advantage at that point, and that’s the advantage I want to have.

“I hope to get there after this weekend or be even closer yet because people also do pay attention to the momentum you have and where you are going, and if we can continue to close that gap, I hope that we can find something positive out of that to send a message and keep things going.”

After getting a slow start in the first two races, some were quick to write off Johnson’s chances at a title this season.

Not so fast.

“We haven’t talked about it in the team too much, but for myself, I’ve been very fortunate over the last five years to be in front of all of you and answer questions, and I’ve always said it’s not over until it’s over even when we’ve had huge points leads, and I don’t know if people believe it,” Johnson said. “This is racing -- anything can and will happen in racing, and I think that there’s more of me trying to prove that point than anything. With that being said, we’ve closed it up to 13 out, and we’re in fifth, but even the other way, there are no guarantees that we’re going to keep going forward. That’s the point I guess I’m trying to make -- that this is racing and with 10 races, 43 guys on track, 500-mile events, there’s a lot that can go right and wrong, and it’s not over until Homestead.”

Johnson drove to victory at Kansas in 2008 for his only win, one of three top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 10 starts at the 1.5-mile track. It’s the first of four 1.5-mile ovals that are included in the final seven races of the Chase.

“I feel good about our 1.5-mile stuff and after reviewing things coming here with Chad (Knaus, crew chief) during the week and this morning I think we are a lot smarter with our 1.5-mile stuff and should have a really, really strong showing here,” Johnson said. “So I’m excited to get on track.”

Johnson qualified 19th at 173.182 mph Friday.

Four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon has some ground to make up this weekend as he is ninth in points, 19 points behind leader Harvick. But this is a great track for “Mr. Brickyard” to make his comeback as Gordon won the first two Cup races in the history of this track, in 2001 and 2002. To date, those are his only two Kansas wins to go along with eight top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 11 starts. He was fifth last year and fourth this past June. He has five straight top five finishes at Kansas.

He credits his Hendrick Motorsports team for that streak of success at Kansas.

“They just really have done a great job analyzing the data at each track, especially when we’ve been to a track once, I just love the way they break down all the information and go back through and how we debrief and prepare from a previous race,” said Gordon, who won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. “I feel like this team just knows how to get better over time. They’re listening to what I need and providing me those tools to go out there and be strong. We might still miss it from time to time, but I’ve got a lot of faith in their systems and the way they go about it.

"We’ve been missing at qualifying -- that’s the only things we’ve really been not doing a great job at this year, and that’s something that we knew we needed to do better at in the Chase. We’ve not done it so far. Hopefully we’ve learned something in these three races that can help us not continue down that path in qualifying. I feel like today we’ve got a great shot at being a top-five.”

A top-five finish at Kansas would also help turn around a very inconsistent start to the Chase for Gordon, who also won the Brickyard 400 in 1998, 2001 and 2004 to go along with his victory in the first NASCAR race at Indianapolis in 1994.

Gordon qualified for the 10th starting position at Kansas with a lap at 174.048 mph Friday.

“Obviously, two of the first three races have not gone quite the way we had hoped,” Gordon said. “I’d say besides New Hampshire we kind of survived the other two. We knew that Dover was going to be a tough race for us. We didn’t anticipate Chicago; so that one kind of threw us off a little bit. We know that this starts our real run at the championship, and we obviously can’t afford to just survive any more races. We’ve got to get out there and put the numbers up, and this is a great weekend to do that.

“Make or break doesn’t mean we have to win this race, but we need to come out of here with a strong performance, I believe that.”

***

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General admission tickets will cost $10 for Thursday, July 26, $30 for Friday, July 27, $40 for Saturday, July 28 and $30 for Sunday, July 29. A four-day Super Weekend general admission ticket is $75, a great value for the ultimate race weekend.

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