Kevin Harvick is in the midst of a
season in which his nickname is an apt description and not an intended irony.
The man they sarcastically call "Happy" comes to Richmond International Raceway playing with house money. He has held the points lead much of the year and clinched a spot in NASCAR's playoffs last month.
"Obviously, the last 10 weeks will be as stressful as they've ever been," Harvick said recently. "We've got to keep doing what we're doing, having fun with it."
He called the three races leading into the Chase "kind of a reward for everything we (did) at the beginning of the year."
In NASCAR B.C. (Before Chase), Harvick would be sailing toward his first Sprint Cup title. Instead, he won't even be in first place after tonight's Air Guard 400, when points are reallocated and driver standings are shuffled.
Though Harvick has been the most consistent driver this season — three wins, 16 top-10s, only three finishes outside the top 20 — he will head into the playoffs as an underdog and simply part of the chatter.
For a stick-and-ball sport analogy, imagine Harvick as the
, should they win the
East and compile the best record in baseball. Then imagine
as the wild-card Yankees.
Johnson and evil genius crew chief Chad Knaus, the four-time champs and playoff kings, will draw the most attention as they aim for a fifth consecutive trophy.
The bull's eye on somebody else's back is fine with Harvick, whose success this season and growing maturity have tempered his famously sour moments.
"I think you can't let the highs be too high or the lows be too low," he said. "You have to find an even ground of how you react to things. It's no different than shaking off a bad week. Your good weeks, you have to shake off as well. Focus on the next week when you get to the racetrack. You have a couple days to enjoy it.
"After the season we had last year, I think it's important that everybody enjoys Victory Lane. You never know when you're going to be back so you might as well enjoy this one like it might be the last one, because you just never know."
Harvick and Richard Childress Racing have made remarkable strides from last year. He didn't win a race in 2009 and missed the Chase. None of Childress' four teams made the playoffs.
One year later, with Childress' Sprint Cup organization pared to three teams — Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer — all likely will be part of the Chase. Burton has clinched, and Bowyer must finish only 28th or better tonight to secure the 12th and final spot.
With all of his teams slogging along through the first part of '09, Childress shuffled the deck last spring. The most notable change was reassigning
, Burton's crew chief, to competition director for the entire organization.
"After the personnel changes took place," Harvick said, "I think we came up with a different direction. The engineering department has become more involved. We're able to use the tools, … all the things we already had here, just using them correctly and more often."
said, "I saw the Childress cars start their momentum at Indy last year and gradually build momentum in performance from there, going forward, all the way to the end of the season. And I knew that they were going to have a great year this year, based off what I saw there."
Indeed, Harvick logged seven top-10 finishes in the final 17 races of 2009, including a fifth at Fort Worth and a third at Homestead at the end of the year.
He began this year with four consecutive top-10 finishes and won at Talladega, Daytona and Michigan. He has finished better than he qualified in 20 of the first 25 races, 13 times finishing at least 10 spots better than he qualified.
"He and his crew chief, Gil Martin, have done an excellent job in making those race cars survive, giving him a chance to win," said
commentator and NASCAR team co-owner Brad Daugherty, for whom Harvick drove in the truck series and who has known him for years.
"At the end of a race, we laugh about it all the time, you look up and there's Kevin," Daugherty said. "And that's the way he wants to race. If he's got a race car that's good enough to go out front and lead all day, he's going to do that. If not, he's going to work on the thing, and Gil's going to work on the thing, and they've just been championship material since Day One."
Winning and running up front lighten the load, professionally and personally.
"I think we've all learned to enjoy the situations a little more than we probably would have in the past," Harvick said. "You've just got to stay cool about the whole thing. You just have to go out and race the car each week and stay relaxed, having fun, keep doing the things we've done up until this point."
If so, Harvick stands a good chance of being happy all the way through the season finale at Homestead.
Dave Fairbank can be reached at 247-4637 or by e-mail at