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Give Scott Miller, Gil Martin and Richard Childress A-pluses for turning around Kevin Harvick's career

  Team owner Richard Childress (R) has turned around his stock car operation this season, and Kevin Harvick is atop the Sprint Cup standings (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   After a dismal 2009, one of the most frustrating seasons of his nine-year Cup career, Kevin Harvick is atop the NASCAR world, and leading the Sprint Cup standings as the season nears it's geographical midpoint, with nine races left till the September playoff cut.
   His view of his little corner of the stock car world: "It's probably an A-plus. We were like 26th or 27th in the points last year."
   And last year at this time, Harvick was fuming, hinting he was ready to pack up and leave team owner Richard Childress at the end of the season.
   But Harvick and Childress came to a quick agreement, to shut up and race it out.
   Then some things things happened. Scott Miller, taking over as competition director, which is looking like a brilliant move. Gil Martin, taking over as crew chief. And, to hear tell, Childress changing computer simulation operations, apparently to that Austrian company that is supposed to be at the head of the class.
   And now, well Harvick came out of the red-hot. He opened winning the Daytona Shootout, had a great shot at winning California a few weeks later, and then got his first tour win since 2007 at Talladega in April.
   Not only that, but Harvick has been on top of the Sprint Cup standings eight straight weeks now.
   "And we had a chance to win a couple other races," he says. "We have run consistently in the top-five. And when we have had a bad day, we have been right around the top-10.
   "We'll win a couple more races. But the consistency is really what we are looking for -- if you're consistently in the top-five, those will be championship numbers."
   Still, Harvick and Martin may be leading the points, but four-time champ Jimmie Johnson is coming on strong, with five wins and his last two back-to-back, Sonoma and Loudon, N.H.
   However this season Harvick seems a quite different man, calm and cool, rarely rattled.
   "This is the best opportunity we've ever had to win a championship," he explains. 
   "I feel the ball is in our court.
    "Obviously you're going to have to knock off Jimmie. Those are the guys that have made it happen in the chase -- been consistent and won races, done what they have had to do over the last 10 weeks.
    "Until somebody proves they can do that (too), those are the guys you have to beat."
    And the key to winning the chase?
   "I think you're going to have to win one or two races in the chase...but you can't have those disasters," Harvick says.
    "We had a 100-point disaster at Martinsville with a brake failure. (That's the only race where Harvick wasn't running on the lead lap at the finish.)
    "You have to prevent those DNFs...you have to prevent those 35th to 40th place finishes."
    Denny Hamlin has finished all 17 races so far; Johnson on the other hand has three unusual DNFs, an axle at Daytona and crashes at Talladega and Darlington.

   Once Scott Miller (L) was promoted by Richard Childress to competition director, things really started taking off (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   So what average finish will it take to win this chase?
   Johnson has set an amazing bar the past few years.
   Last season Johnson had but one DNF, and he averaged an 11.1 over the regular season and 6.8 in the chase – marred only by that 38th at Texas, after a crash. In his other nine chase runs Johnson finished fourth, first, ninth, first, first, second, sixth, first and fifth.
   In 2008 he had one regular season DNF, and averaged a 10.5 finish. In the chase Johnson stepped it up to 5.7 average.
   This season, through the first 17 races, Harvick is setting a torrid pace, with an average finish of 8.5.
   "It used to be a 12th-place (average) would win," Harvick says. "Now I think you'll have to be seventh or eighth, average, in the last 10 races to make it happen.
    "Five race wins and five DNFs won't win a championship."

   The key for Harvick was getting through the month of May, which he says hasn't been his greatest month in seasons past.
   Now he's looking toward a string of track he likes: "Everybody circles Indianapolis (he won in 2003). And we have Atlanta and California, and we ran great at Pocono, Watkins Glen, Richmond."
   And Chicago, next week's stop, has been good to Harvick too.
   "I feel confident we can be competitive any week," he says. "The only place we really struggled this year has been Michigan; luckily that's not a track in the chase."
    What's made the difference this year?
    "I have learned when you start trying to force the issue -- and I learned this lesson the hard way this year at California, because we had not won in a while, and tried to force the issue, and made a mistake and cost ourselves a chance to win, instead of being patient -- you can't force winning.
    "You just have to run good, run consistent, run hard, and put yourself in position to win.
    "When you follow the year that we had, you learn not to get greedy. I've been around this deal long enough to know that we keep running like we are, we'll win our share of races.
     "You saw Denny go through his streak -- they won five of 11 races. Jimmie has gone through streaks.
    "This is a very streaky sport. So when you get on that streak, you have to it ride that wave.
     "....and when that streak ends, you have to prevent the disaster from wrecks and parts failures."
    Sure, sure. But it seems like when Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus get to those last 10 races, they take it all to a different level. They have won four of the six chase-format championships.
    And Johnson and Knaus are poised to make that five-of-seven. Unless Harvick and Hamlin, or some longer shot, can stop them.

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   Crew chief Gil Martin (L) and Kevin Harvick: Can they end Jimmie Johnson championship winning streak? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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