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Kevin Harvick is all smiles right now, but wary...and with good reason. Consider this:

  Kevin Harvick, on a bright sunny Friday at Bristol (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)  

   By Mike Mulhern

    BRISTOL, Tenn.
    Now, with all the hoopla surrounding Kevin Harvick and the resurgence of the Richard Childress operation, a little cautionary note:
    -- In 2009 Tony Stewart dominated the regular season, finishing 303 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, heading into the playoffs. But Stewart faded to sixth in the chase and finished 343 points down to champ Johnson.
   -- In 2008 Kyle Busch dominated the regular season, finishing 302 points ahead of Johnson, heading into the playoffs. But Busch faded in the chase and finished 10th in the playoffs 498 points behind champ Johnson.
   -- In 2007 Jeff Gordon dominated the regular season, finishing a whopping 512 points ahead of Johnson, heading into the playoffs. And Gordon did have a great chase, but he still fell short to Johnson by 77 points.
   Yes, of course the points are re-zeroed, essentially, at the end of the regular season, however the points here are clear – don't write off Jimmie Johnson...don't give Harvick the trophy yet...and keep an open mind about what the chase might provide.
    "I still think Jimmie's team is the team to beat," Harvick himself insists.
   "No matter how good somebody runs, I still think those guys are the ones to beat -- they have won it the last four years.
   "Obviously we've run well, and we feel we can contend for a championship. But contending and winning are two different things.
   "We've shown we can win races and run good. But until somebody completes the deal and knocks them off, they have to be the ones you have to beat."
   Still Harvick is looking cool and comfortable with things, and Childress has won more than a few championships over the years. And they just signed a couple of new big-buck sponsors. And Johnson and the Rick Hendrick guys appear to be reeling.
    On top of the NASCAR world? "It is really hard to take it all in, to be honest with you....we all know where we were a year ago," Harvick says.
   "It is a lot of fun for us to enjoy it.
   "We all respect it a tremendous amount -- just for the fact that you know how it can turn away from you in a heartbeat.
    "Everybody is relaxed; I think these next three races are going to be fun for us. We are obviously racing hard, but there is no pressure...
    "We're going to have fun with it.
    "It is a kind of reward for everybody....and a good good time to get mentally prepared and relaxed for the last 10 races."


   Carl Edwards: the man to beat Saturday at Bristol? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    On the other side of the equation is Carl Edwards, who, with his teammates, was down for so long that the only way to go was up. And now they're all on the up-side of things.
   First, Jack Roush update:  "Today he's in a super-good mood....and he's doing well," Edwards said Friday.
   Roush's crash July 27th kept him hospitalized for two weeks, but he was back atop the pit box last Sunday at Michigan, though he did watch the end of the race from the air-conditioned coolness of a suite.
    "Jack is pretty amazing...." Edwards says.
    Now, a title run?
    No, first the decision on his Nationwide tour game plan for 2011: Edwards says he's decided to run the full Nationwide tour again next season, no matter what NASCAR might do with the rules. There is speculation NASCAR may try to put some limits on Cup drivers making the crossover.
   "I don't know the real solution....I don't even know the real problem," Edwards says of the Cup-drivers-in-Nationwide situation.
   "If I said I wasn't going to run Nationwide, it might actually hurt Jack's ability to field other cars, that's the way it's been explained to me."
   And Edwards considers himself a veteran Nationwide racer, not just an interloper: "I committed to racing the Nationwide series full-time in 2005, before I even had a full sponsor over there. And that was all I had, before I got this Cup ride."

   So does Jimmie Johnson need more speed under this hood, or a different chassis setup? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   On Johnson's side, he's pointing at Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin: "Those guys should be considered the favorites. 
   "If you look at their success on all types of track, they're doing a great job collecting a lot of points everywhere we go. 
    "The win at Michigan solidified things for them. They're on fire right now.
   "In racing with Kevin over the years, and being around him...a lot of us were shocked to see the last few years the way things have been for them.  You don't win a Busch/Nationwide championship by accident; you don't win the big races he's won by accident. 
    "We're definitely working hard to catch those guys.
    "Our programs for the mile-and-below (Phoenix, New Hampshire, Dover, Richmond, Martinsville and Bristol) and at the road courses this year have been really strong.  We were very pleased with our performance at Phoenix although we didn't win; we looked good at New Hampshire, we looked good at Dover, we won here. 
    "But we've been off on the 1-1/2-mile and two-mile tracks.
   "Even when I won, I wasn't the dominate car: At California Kevin was coming and got into the fence, and we won.  At Vegas we had a solid performance, but Jeff Gordon dominated all day, and we got him at the end with some tire strategy. 
    "We knew then we needed to go to work and find some speed, and we've been working all summer on the big tracks to find it. 
    "We're not where we want to be yet, but fortunately we still have some time.
    "Hopefully we'll have the speed we need. If we get to Atlanta (Sept. 5th) and don't have the speed....well, Atlanta hasn't been our best track for us.
   "But once we get in the chase, if we get to Kansas (Oct. 3rd) and don't run like we need to, we'll step back and punt."

   NASCAR 2011 Nationwide tour

Feb. 19                         Daytona
Feb. 26                         Phoenix
March 5                        Las Vegas
March 19                      Bristol
March 26                      California
April 8                          Texas
April 16                        Talladega
April 23                        Nashville
April 29                        Richmond
May 6                           Darlington
May 14                         Dover
May 22                         Iowa
May 28                         Charlotte
June 4                          Chicagoland
June 18                        Michigan
June 25                        Road America
July 1                           Daytona
July 8                           Kentucky
July 16                         New Hampshire
July 23                         Nashville
July 30                         Indianapolis (Raceway Park)
Aug. 6                          Iowa
Aug. 13                        Watkins Glen
Aug. 20                        Montreal
Aug. 26                        Bristol
Sept. 3                         Atlanta
Sept. 9                         Richmond
Sept. 17                        Chicagoland
Oct. 1                           Dover
Oct. 8                           Kansas
Oct. 14                         Charlotte
Nov. 5                          Texas
Nov. 12                         Phoenix
Nov. 19                         Homestead-Miami

      NASCAR 2011 Truck tour

Feb. 18                         Daytona
Feb. 25                         Phoenix
March 12                      Darlington
April 2                          Martinsville
April 22                        Nashville
May 13                         Dover
May 20                         Charlotte
June 4                          Kansas
June 10                        Texas
July 16                         Iowa
July 22                         Nashville
July 29                         Indianapolis (Raceway Park)
Aug. 6                          Pocono
Aug. 20                        Michigan
Aug. 24                        Bristol
Sept. 2                         Atlanta
Sept. 16                        Chicagoland
Sept. 24                        New Hampshire
Oct. 1                           Kentucky
Oct. 15                         Las Vegas
Oct. 22                         Talladega
Oct. 29                         Martinsville
Nov. 4                          Texas
Nov. 18                         Homestead-Miami

(Note: one additional date to be added)

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