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Richard Childress signs another big sponsor...and may now have to put some Bud on tap at the Vineyards

  Kevin Harvick (R) and team owner Richard Childress (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Yes, it's Budweiser.
   And Kevin Harvick's third tour win of the season, Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, made Tuesday's official announcement all the more impressive.
   Harvick has led the Sprint Cup tour standings most of the season, in a remarkable turnaround from a frustrating 2009. And with wins at Talladega, Daytona and Michigan, he's proven solid and consistent right from the February start of the season.
   When Shell, the team's sponsor the past three years, announced in April it would be leaving at the end of the season and moving to the Roger Penske operation, Childress was quick to spring to action. And when the Anheuser-Busch brand became a player in the NASCAR market that same month, with news that Kasey Kahne, Bud's man in NASCAR the past two years, had signed a contract with Rick Hendrick for 2011 and beyond, Childress started the pitch.
   The Bud deal with Harvick and Childress comes only days after Childress announced an expansion to four Cup teams for 2011.
   While Bud has long been a major NASCAR sponsor (including a long run with its Busch brand, 25 years sponsoring NASCAR's Triple-A series), the beer market in general has been in something of the doldrums lately, and the precise marketing angles have been questioned in several respects.
   One marketing angle is to pitch beer to the younger demographic; even Rusty Wallace, as he aged, was seen by some as too old for the demographic Miller was looking for. Miller, which has sponsored Penske's Kurt Busch (32 and now married) the past several years, will be moving to Penske's newest driver, Brad Keselowski (26 and single). Bud has been sponsoring Kahne (30 and single). Harvick is 34 and married.
   Childress said signing a major sponsor like Budweiser "is great...in today's economy. You're getting a sponsor, and having a three-year program put together is a really big thing."
  Of course all is not that well in the Childress camp. Harvick may be locked into the championship chase, but teammate Clint Bowyer is struggling to make the playoff cut, with three races left.
   "You can't imagine what Clint Bowyer is having to go through, and that group of guys on the bubble," Childress said.
   "We've been there before....He knows the pressure."
   So Bowyer will have one game plan for Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond, the three races that will determine the 12-man playoff lineup.
   And Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin will have another. "To be locked in now, we're going to be doing some things, trying some different stuff these last two or three races, and be ready for the chase," Childress says.
   The looming shape of the chase is, well, a bit unclear. Yes, Harvick is extremely strong. But four-time champ Jimmie Johnson has looked very ragged over the summer, and teammate Jeff Gordon has run strong but had terrible luck (as he did once again Sunday, with a flat tire late while challenging for the win). And Mark Martin, the third teammate with Johnson and Gordon, is fighting to make the playoffs too....while fourth teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. is all but history in that battle, after another mediocre run, 19th.
   However Childress, despite the strength his teams have all show, is wary about rival Rick Hendrick come the chase, where Johnson and Gordon have shown remarkable prowess.
    "That's a great organization....and Jimmie Johnson, don't count him out in the chase," Childress warns. "And Jeff Gordon is having one of his better years."
   Elsewhere in the Childress camp Jeff Burton is having a great year showing trouble closing the deal each Sunday. (Curiously at Michigan Burton was never really even in contention, something of a surprise.)
   Burton will make the chase though.
   And if Bowyer makes the cut, Childress says he could be a title threat too: "Clint gets overlooked....but he was one of the contenders for the championship in 2007." 
   For Childress himself, this season has been a major triumph as a comeback. The guy has been playing this game since 1969, when he got his first big break into what was then the Grand National tour. And he's won six championships.  
   At 64 Childress says "There's a certain amount of fighter still left in me.
   "I'm getting a little older...but you still have to fight to survive -- and I want to win another championship for this organization.  I want to be involved in it, and that drives me."
   Throughout 2009 the Childress operation seemed to be fading. Things weren't going right, wins weren't coming, dissention was rife.
    Now, though, it's like Team Prozac – mellow exudes from every corner of the operation.
    Most strikingly Harvick himself.
   Once NASCAR's bad boy – parked for a Cup race by an irate Bill France Jr. for what he considered insolence, Harvick has carried the nickname 'Happy' the past few years for his moodiness.
   However this 'new' Kevin Harvick is stunning to behold.
   He has been the model of control and temper-management....even while dishing out lessons on the track, like with newcomer Joey Logano.
   Of course Childress had to deal with the equally temperamental and volatile Dale Earnhardt, which may have given Childress patience and understanding  in getting through last summer's flare-ups with Harvick.
      "Like all of us -- we all mature with age and experience," Childress says. "As you go through different experiences in life, you look back and say 'Man, why did I do that?' Or 'Why did I say that?' 
    "You try to be a better person, a better representative...and just watching that with Kevin is one of the neatest things. 
    "I have seen how he's matured. He knows his responsibility as a driver in the sport...it comes with time. 
    "I can remember how Dale Earnhardt was in '79 and '80 and '81. He went through some of the same stuff, and it took him a few years to figure it out."
    With his new-found coolness – Harvick points to the February loss at California as key – Harvick has become a smarter racer," Childress says.
    "He's always had a knack of being smart. But, as we look back at some of the things that happened last year, he just gets smarter every year."


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 Kevin Harvick (29) leading Kasey Kahne at Daytona. Next season Harvick gets the Bud colors (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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