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Kevin Harvick ponders how to play Martinsville, given his underdog role this weekend

  Kevin Harvick: Time to step it up and put some pressure on Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



   While the Richard Petty-George Gillett-Kasey Kahne drama plays out in the shadows at Martinsville Speedway, Kevin Harvick – who is the man on the championship hot seat here this week, as underdog to Sunday favorites Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin – says he has a game plan for this 500:
    "I think it has a spoiler feel to it. We'll spoil the one-two showdown hopefully."

    And just how does Harvick plan to try to handle Johnson and Hamlin here? He's never even scored a top-five, and over the last seven races here he's averaged only an 18th place finish.
    Over that span either Johnson or Hamlin has wound up in victory lane.
    Looks like an uphill weekend.
    And despite the 'winning' the regular season championship Harvick has lost ground to Johnson in six of the last seven Sprint Cup tour events.
    Doesn't Harvick, who is 77 points down, really have to hit a home run, either here or next week at Talladega, to take a bite out of Johnson's lead?
   "Or just hit him!," Harvick said with a laugh. 
   "No, I'm just kidding....kinda."
    Kinda, yeah.
    But Harvick does have to make something happen, clearly...though he seems torn between wanting to start pushing, or – remember the February race in California – trying to continue to be patient.
    Johnson and Hamlin should go 1-2 or 2-1 here, since they've won every race here the past several years.
    That's pressure on Harvick.

    In a curious twist.....
   After Harvick complained about his pit crew at Charlotte, team owner Richard Childress made a bold – if questionable – move, to swap crews, giving Harvick Clint Bowyer's crew and putting Harvick's crew in charge of Bowyer's car.
   Childress has swapped crews and crew chiefs before – remember his swapping crew chief Larry McReynolds from Dale Earnhardt's team, just a few months after McReynolds led Earnhardt to victory in the Daytona? But not all those swaps have been productive.
   And Bowyer himself Friday here clearly had questions about this latest move, though he put up the company front and insisted he supported it, though it didn't appear he really had his heart into it.
   "There is no question that my team is arguably the best team at RCR," Bowyer says. "They've been together the longest. 
   "With us being out of the championship deal, Kevin is the last shot at RCR at bringing a championship home.  We owe it to everybody involved, to bring that championship back home. 
     "Certainly I'm going to miss them.....
    "But I think we can win with his pit crew as well."
    Raised eyebrows all around here.
    "Well, the ones that it is hard for is the guys that have been with him all year long.... and with five races to go you turn your back on them," Bowyer said, referring to the crew swap.
    Bowyer said he was told what the deal would be, and then he had to pass the word: "They called and told me that is what they wanted to do...and I owed it to those guys to go in and tell them that. 
    "So Tuesday morning I went in myself and got my guys together and told them what was going to happen...."

   Is that a move of desperation?
   Well, Johnson, for his part, says he's more cool and relaxed about things than he's ever been this deep into the chase.
   And Hamlin himself says, after playing defense the first five playoff races, he's got to step things up.
   Harvick here? He still seems aiming toward a no-mistakes strategy.
   "It's a decent race track for us," Harvick says of this flat half-mile. "Obviously those guys have the results....but from the beginning of the chase we've over-achieved on everything we've done.
    "This has just been a good year for us, and we're not going to do anything different.
    "If we hit a home run this weekend, we hit a home run. If we don't, there is no reason to worry about trying to force anything.
     "We need to win a race in the next five to make it happen. But when you start forcing things, you'll wind up with a 35th , and then you'll be done.
     "To be in the game you have to be close enough to be a part of the game."

     Hamlin's victory here in the spring was a stunner, after he pitted unexpected for four tires in the final miles, and then charged to victory.
     Harvick says that was almost a fluke, that if Joey Logano, Hamlin's teammate, hadn't given Hamlin the spot on that last restart, Hamlin wouldn't have won.
    "If Joey hasn't let Denny in, Denny probably gets wrecked by somebody else," Hamlin said. "If that was me, he would have been wrecked, because he wouldn't have got in the hole.
    "We probably both would have wrecked, because he forced his way down on his teammate. That's really what allowed him to win the race.
    "The circumstances played out exactly how they needed to for him -- with Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon having something brewing there, a feud at that particular point and running into each other.
    "Without Joey being there, I don't think (fresh) tires would have made it all the way back to the front."

    And Hamlin agrees: "There were a lot of ways I could have lost that race....and only a few ways I could have won."
    But Hamlin won.
    "We let everyone back in the door when we stopped to take tires with nine to go....that day went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows to the highest of highs....in just five minutes," Hamlin said.
     Harvick looks at the technicals facing crew chiefs here Sunday: "If you have four fresh tires, speed is going to fall off over 100 laps probably a second (per lap). In the first 50 it's going to fall off four to five tenths.
    "So if there's 50 laps left, everybody is going to come in and put four tires on.
     "If there is 25 laps left, and 10 cars on the lead lap, most everybody is going to come in (for tires). It's just a matter of how many guys are on the lead lap.
     "And with 20 laps to go, and you're eighth....unless it plays out absolutely perfect like it did for him (Hamlin) last time -- you're not making it to the front, especially if you start on the outside on the restart."
    Inside 50 laps, Harvick says this race will be "a crap shoot.
    "It's as much a guessing game as anything...because the guys up front are going to do everything they can to hold their track position -- They're going to stay two-wide, and if that leader gets out there you're just not going to catch him unless there are multiple cautions and you can catch a break on the restart."
   Harvick says he and his crew have been overachievers the first five of the 10 playoff races. But the next five "are particularly good tracks for us -- Homestead, Phoenix, and even here."
    Home run time?
    Certainly Harvick and Hamlin both have to start beating Johnson head-to-head.
    Not since the opening race of the chase, where Johnson finished 25th, have the two finished ahead of him.


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