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Kevin Harvick faces his biggest race of the season: Must Win?

  The best driver in NASCAR this season....but will Kevin Harvick rally to win the Sprint Cup championship? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



   Must win?
   Is this now a two-man race for the championship, between new leader Denny Hamlin and four-time winner Jimmie Johnson, just 33 points down with two to go?
   Well, Kevin Harvick and team owner Richard Childress sure don't see it that way.
   Harvick is only 59 points down to Hamlin coming into Sunday's race here, and he gained 12 points on Johnson at Texas last weekend, and he gained 24 points on Johnson the previous weekend at Talladega, and he gained 15 points on Johnson the previous weekend at Martinsville...
   But then Harvick is still 59 points down to the leader, and this isn't one of his best tracks.

   Harvick has been Mr. Consistent all season, with more top-10s (24) than anyone, and with 30 top-15s in the 34 races. He's won at Talladega, Daytona and Michigan. And over those 34 events Harvick has the best average finish, an 8.9.
   So, in considering Kevin Harvick's situation right now, consider this: If this year's NASCAR championship title were determined by NASCAR's traditional system -- counting every race, not just the final 10 -- Harvick would be leading Johnson by a whopping 300 points, and leading Hamlin by 352 points.
   So is this 'chase' system a fair and legitimate way to determine this season's best driver – who arguably should become the sport's champion?
   These are just the facts. You'll have to decide.
   As it stands, Harvick is almost in a 'Must Win' situation here.
   Typically, a driver, to have a decent shot at the title, would have to be within about 30 points of the lead coming out of here Sunday, heading to Homestead, Fla., for the finale.
   Also consider this: If Harvick were to win here, and lead the most laps, Hamlin could just finish 10th (and lead at least one lap) and still go to Homestead the tour points leader.
   Harvick, who is having his best season ever, and whose attitude about life and this sport has changed so dramatically – for the better – this season understands the situation.
   "I don't think top-10 finishes are going to cut it," Harvick says. "I think it's going to come down to putting yourself in victory lane and capitalizing on the most bonus points in the next two weeks."



   And the beat goes on:
   Phoenix is a big, big market for this sport, and NASCAR drivers are out marketing to beat the band.

   -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., just a couple races away from his 400th Cup start, will be co-promoting on ice here during Friday night's Coyotes game against the Calgary Flames.  In an interesting twist, Earnhardt will do some pre-game Q&A with fans buying a special $88 ticket. Maybe he will have some explanation for his lackluster performances lately. Sunday at Texas Earnhardt was shown up by rookie newcomer Trevor Bayne....

   -- Mark Martin and Danica Patrick will be side-by-side in another downtown Phoenix promotion Thursday, a 'fan fest' of sorts. This is Patrick's hometown, and she's running in Saturday's Nationwide race. This promotion will kick off with a 'tweetup.'
   Martin, though he didn't make the playoffs, is having a bang-up fall. Only the tour's three leaders have scored more points during the chase. And Martin had a shot at winning Texas. Plus Martin's worst finish here since signing on with Rick Hendrick is fourth. In fact, over his career Phoenix International Raceway has been Martin's best oval.

   --  Kevin Harvick's crew will play in a grocery bagging contest at a nearby store Thursday evening...crew versus fans, to see who can bag groceries the fastest.

   --  'Come on down!' Clint Bowyer will be part of a NASCAR-themed 'Price is Right,' Monday morning, for CBS. Three of the items he'll be pitching: a trip to Charlotte's NASCAR Hall of Fame, a trip to the Homestead-Miami finale, and, of course, a Chevy.

   And you thought all these guys did was race, fight and party.....

   Speaking of the Charlotte Hall of Fame, Lauri Wilks, once a top Charlotte Motor Speedway exec, and most recently at Richmond International Raceway, will be taking over sale and marketing for the struggling Hall, which hasn't hit the mark in anticipated visitors this first year.

   Meanwhile, over in the Richard Petty Motorsports camp, where mystery abounds, Aric Almirola is braced for his fourth start at the wheel of the Ford Kasey Kahne drove most of the year, until abruptly departing last month. The team's rigs all started hauling over here from Texas Wednesday.....
   Which may raise a side issue: how many other teams simply swapped out cars at Texas for the 1,000-mile run to Phoenix International Raceway?

   Almirola, one of the most impressive newcomers in this sport in quite a while, is still trying to make a name for himself. He's got three shots here, in Friday's Truck race, Saturday's Nationwide race, and Sunday's Cup race.

   Justin Allgaier is another impressive newcomer whose future is still cloudy. He's fourth in the Nationwide standings, the best-running only-Nationwide tour driver, behind Cup stars Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. Sponsor Verizon is pulling out at the end of the season. And team owner Roger Penske has yet to make a clear-cut decision on what to do with Cup star Sam Hornish....like possibly making room for Allgaier. (Hornish, though he's run well at times in Cup, has only one top-10 this season, his third on the tour.)
     It is all yet another indication of the problems facing NASCAR's Triple-A series – does domination by Cup stars hurt up-and-comers like Allgaier....and what changes could be made to shake things up?

   Public humiliation of his worker-bees is rarely a good move for any businessman, and how this strange pit crew move affects Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and team owner Rick Hendrick remains to be seen.
   Johnson and Knaus may indeed overcome the flap...after all they've won 19 of the 64 'chase' races since the new format was adopted in 2004. And their record at Phoenix is flat amazing.
   But in the court of public opinion, well, things might come out a little differently.
   And then maybe the guys who helped Johnson win six races this season will be psyched up for their 'new' driver, Jeff Gordon.
   Might be interesting to watch these two pit crews Sunday afternoon, and see who wins out, especially if the race for the win comes down to these two teammates and those final pit stops....

   Remember Jeffrey Earnhardt?
   Once billed as a hot shot up-and-comer at Dale Earnhardt Inc., the fourth-generation racer hasn't quite lived up to that billing yet, and the demise of DEI probably didn't help.
   But he's lined up a ride in the upcoming Daytona 24 Hours. And Earnhardt, Dale Sr.'s nephew and the son of Kerry Earnhardt, is only 21.
   Ford's 'championship weekend' marketing of the season finale at Homestead-Miami might be a little tough this time, with Toyota's Todd Bodine all-but having clinched the Truck championship, and Dodge's Brad Keselowski just clinching the Nationwide title last weekend.

   And among perhaps little-known facts you might, or might not, be interested in:
   -- Italy's Giovanna Lecis, a three-time world aerobic champion, who hosts her own fitness show on Italian TV, and who has played stuntwoman for Madonna, is returning home after a two-year stint as Michael Waltrip's team trainer.




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