Could Kevin Harvick be the driver to beat in 2011?
On Sunday, Kevin Harvick passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the closing laps at Martinsville Speedway to take his second consecutive Sprint Cup win. The previous week he won at California with a thrilling last-lap pass of five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
With the two victories, Harvick has climbed completely out of the early-season hole he found himself in following a 42nd place result in the Daytona 500. He currently sits fifth in the standings and leads all drivers with his two victories.
Harvick led the regular season standings for most of 2010 and at times looked like the driver to beat, but eventually came up 41 points short in the championship race and finished third in the final standings.
With his strong performances so far in 2011, Harvick has shown he hasn't lost his 2010 form and is once again ready and eager to challenge for the championship.
Harvick's strength in 2011 is clear to even the most casual observer based on his two victories. But there is an abundance of other indications beyond that obvious fact demonstrating Harvick’s readiness to win his first Sprint Cup championship.
The most impressive aspect of Harvick's season has been the way he finishes races. Borrowing a page from Jimmie Johnson's playbook, he has shown strength as a closer and come from seemingly nowhere to take the checkered flag.
Where will Harvick finish in the 2011 final standings?
Harvick led only the final lap at California en route to the victory. At Martinsville he led only six laps, although Harvick had the fastest car on the track for the last hundred laps. He had been steadily closing in on the leaders when the caution flag flew with around 35 laps to go, setting up the final run of the race.
The key to winning races is being in the right position with the strongest car at the end of the race, and Harvick has used that formula to perfection the last two races. Harvick has shown it doesn't matter who leads for most of the race if you're a better closer than the rest of the field.
Harvick has also shown his readiness to win the championship with a no-holds-barred approach to winning races. His willingness to do whatever it takes to win has led to his early-season success.
Aggressiveness has led directly to both of his victories. Harvick got into the rear of Jimmie Johnson at California to get him loose while making the pass on the final turn. At Martinsville he passed first the feisty Kyle Busch and then the sport's most popular driver on his way to an admittedly unpopular win with the fans.
What’s more, Harvick hasn't been lucking into any of his wins. He's had to beat the best in order to find Victory Lane.
Last season, two of his three victories came at restrictor-plate tracks, which tend to be crap-shoots where no one can predict the winner until the checkered flag is in the air. But his 2011 victories have been won by hard driving at the expense of some of the sport's most experienced and talented drivers.
Before the season started, Harvick changed his cell phone passcode to 4848 to remind him who he needed to beat to win the championship. So far, it has been mission accomplished after beating Johnson for the win at California and then at Martinsville, Johnson's best track.
Harvick has also shown his readiness to win a championship with a new and improved attitude in 2011. In previous seasons, Harvick's poor attitude was often cited as a reason he would never win a championship. Harvick's moods tended to be volatile and he would regularly criticize his pit crew over the radio during races, leading to frustration for all involved.
That hasn't been the case in 2011. After a disappointing finish in the Daytona 500, Harvick buckled down to business with a determination that has paid tremendous dividends so far.
Instead of lashing out with criticism and throwing a pity party, Harvick used the disappointment at Daytona as a motivation to challenge his entire team to step it up a notch.
The results of his upbeat attitude have demonstrated that his team is in for the long haul. Harvick clearly plans on having a say in the championship conversation at the end of the year.
He has had fast cars all year, and he's clearly having fun driving them. His nickname of "Happy" Harvick, which usually has had an ironic tone to it, actually describes him for once.
Who will be the 2011 Sprint Cup champion?
One possible concern for Harvick is that he hasn't led many laps this year. He led only seven laps in his two wins, with a total of just 50 for the entire year.
Still, he has led laps in all but one event, and with the speed of the RCR cars, this will likely be a temporary phenomenon for Harvick. And as he has shown, it doesn't matter who has the strong car for the bulk of the race as long as you're there at the end.
Will this be the year Harvick finally wins a Sprint Cup championship, the first for RCR since its 1994 championship with Dale Earnhardt, the man Harvick replaced?
Based on the early results, Harvick is looking as strong as any driver so far. The last few years have shown it's unwise to bet against Jimmie Johnson. Carl Edwards has also looked strong so far in 2011. But if Harvick can continue to have strong runs and win races, he’ll have as good a shot as any driver.