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Happy's happy, and this week he's in the Land of Oz....

  Burn one for the boss! Black cars were always Richard Childress' strong suit....and Kevin Harvick seems to like them too (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   KANSAS CITY, Kansas
   Ol' Happy is looking pretty happy these days.
   Three wins already now this season, with Sunday's 600 at Charlotte, and it's not even summer.

   That's pretty much an automatic bye now in the NASCAR championship playoffs.
   So Kevin Harvick left Charlotte Motor Speedway with a smile.
   And that's better than he was anticipating.
   Maybe now he can lighten up on crew chief Gil Martin, who must have skin of steel to keeping dealing with the moody but talented Harvick and being so successful together.
   "I've had pretty good chemistry with Kevin the whole time," Martin says. "I've watched his driving style and everything else, and no matter where he goes --if he gets mad or whatever has happened through the years -- I've learned to deal with it.  It doesn't bother me.
    "And I think all these guys have learned the same thing -- that we can sit up in the lounge and throw punches and take them pretty easily with each other, and nobody gets offended.
    "That's what it's all about, because this sport is so much about feelings and everybody wearing their feelings on their shoulders…
    "Then one of you interview one of us and say 'This one said that, and you got mad on the radio, and Kevin thought the car was terrible, and what are you going to do?'
    "Well, this was one of those nights, and we just worked our way through it.
    "Basically, he has a right (to gripe) when we come to Charlotte; we have run bad.  We haven't given him a very good car. And that's the stuff we're working on."

     Crew chief Gil Martin: skin of steel, and a cool gambler (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    "We've been at this for 10 years now….Just every time we've come to Charlotte, nothing has really gone our way," Harvick says. "I've struggled.
    "So just to be in position to win the race was an accomplishment.
    "We're going to celebrate it like it's our last one…because it might be.  You never know."

   Kevin Harvick is a closer, one of the best in the sport. And he showed that once again last weekend at Charlotte.
   As all about him were running out of gas, Harvick played it just right, in winning his third of the season.
   "I've been on the other side of this fence a lot with the fuel mileage stuff and the strategy. It just seems this year you have to be more aggressive taking chances," Harvick said.
   "I think they wanted to pit it, sounded like to me. And I was like 'We didn't come here to run 15th.'
    "You've seen these races won -- you've got to be aggressive (on pit strategy0, because if you're not, somebody else is.
    "Gil is very aggressive (on pit strategy), but I think (at Charlotte) we took it to another level.
    "You've got to take more chances if you're going to win.  You can finish seventh or eighth, but if you're going to win you're going to have to take some chances when all the cautions start coming out."

    Team owner Richard Childress: now that Kevin Harvick's made the playoffs, what about Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The 600, after some 4-1/2 hours of odd tactics and strategies, dictated by untimely cautions during rounds of routine green flag stops, boiled down to a gas mileage race.
   And, really, no one had enough fuel at the end to make it to the line. Still they all gambled, one way or another.
   Harvick gambled by stretching his fuel.
   "I knew I was a lap and a half short, so I just shut my car down (at the end)," Harvick said of the final miles. "I didn't have any pressure from behind me, and we'd run probably 10 or 15 laps probably a second off the pace. I got some good savings under the caution."
   And it all worked out.
   Still, watching Dale Earnhardt Jr. leading then running out of gas in the final corner, Harvick had mixed emotions.
   "I feel like complete crap, to tell you the truth," Harvick said. "Man, when I saw that thing slowing down…I was like 'I really want to win the race….why can't it be on a day when we're running bad.
    "I think everybody would say we want Dale Jr. to win. And they're so close to winning…
    "I feel so stinking bad for him. I know how bad he wants it.  But it'll happen."



    Kevin Harvick's pit crew: a blur of speed at Charlotte (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "Kevin," team owner Richard Childress said, "is as good as anybody knowing how to save fuel. If anybody could make it, I felt he could."
    Still, Harvick wasn't all that happy in victory, even though it was his first-ever points win at Charlotte: "It's Charlotte.  Even though we won, I'm still miserable.
    "I will be happy when we drive out of that tunnel, and the month of May is over.
    "I think maybe I just need to have a better attitude.  I don't know.  I think a better attitude might go a long ways.
    "This is a great track, a great facility, and I know everybody loves coming here because it's close to home.
    "But for me it's been a struggle since Day One of my career. Well, I shouldn't say that; we finished second the first time I came here.
    "It's just been that one track that just frustrates the hell out of me that I can't figure out."
   And when the 600 began Harvick was in familiar territory: "When they threw the green flag, I said 'We haven't fixed it in two weeks.'
   "And Gil said 'We've got four more hours, and we're going to fix you right up.'"



Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- closer and closer to that first tour win since the summer of 2008 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Martin started his end-game with more than an hour to go:  "We knew with right at 100 laps to go, that we were needing to get to lap 348 (of the 400) to be able to make it in one last stop. 
   "When that caution came out on 343, we knew it was going to be extremely close.
    "We watched the last 40 laps, and the lap times some of those guys were running at 29.70 and 29.80, and we were running 30.80. I knew at that point they had pretty given up, that they weren't going to be able to make it, and they were hoping that caution was going to come out.
    "But the pace they set…and they tried 25 laps later to start saving fuel, I knew they were dead in the water."
    But could Harvick stretch it? "Any way we could crunch numbers, we were a lap and a half short," Martin said.
   Helping make the distance, Childress' three cars hooked up under caution and pushed each other.
   "It was all legal," Childress said. "You just can't push somebody across the checkered flag to win it on the last lap."


Charlotte's pit road can get very busy under yellow flag stops. Better watch your toes (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Despite a crash on the final restart, NASCAR didn't throw a caution.
   The timing of cautions is sometimes maddening for drivers. And considering Earnhardt had just swept into the lead when the incident began, well, suspicions mounted. After all, NASCAR could easily have called for a green-white-checkered finish, three times in fact.
   Harvick, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth:  "When you're the recipient of the caution, and it's not falling your way, you're going to be mad. 
    "I don't know if there was debris out there or not.  I was frustrated, but all the guys who were the beneficiary of that weren't frustrated.  It's just the nature of the beast.
   "The one thing I have learned over the last two or three weeks -- and it really puts it all into reality -- is there has to be a judge.  There has to be somebody making those decisions. There has to be somebody who says 'Yep, there's debris on the track.  I see it, and there it is.'  And 'This car is illegal,' or 'That car is illegal, here's the penalty.'
    "It took me, after the whole Kyle Busch thing (at Darlington) and the penalty, it took me a couple weeks to get over that. 
     "I was really frustrated, and I had a good conversation with Mike (Helton, NASCAR president). And that part made sense to me, and I understand.
    "But it still doesn't keep me from getting frustrated. 
    "If I don't see the debris, I'm going to be mad on the radio because we just went a lap down. 
    "But there has to be somebody making the calls…and I'm glad I don't have to make them."

    Childress himself didn't really see Harvick pulling this one out: "With about ten to go, I went to the condo. I said 'I don't think we've got much of a chance to win, so I'm going to beat traffic.'
    "It's a good thing I was up there because I got to talk to Paul Menard (Harvick's teammate); and I could see some things going on that I wouldn't have seen down here.
    "Yeah, we all want to see Dale Jr. win…but not at our expense.  When I saw Dale coming down the backstretch, I said 'Dale is going to win this race.'
    "Then all of a sudden when I heard our spotter start screaming, I said 'Hell, we're going to win it!'
    "We all want to see Dale Jr. win. He's going to win his races, and I'll be the first one there to congratulate him, because I am an Earnhardt fan at heart.
    "But I pull for my guys, and I want to see them win."


   This one's for you, bud. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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