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Thursday February 11th, 2016 1:31AM

Harvick can't be ignored in 2014 at Stewart-Haas

By Jenna Fryer, AP Auto Racing Writer
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DAYTONA BEACH, FL (AP) - Kevin Harvick took his first spin in his new Stewart-Haas Racing ride and immediately felt at ease.

It was three days after Harvick had wrapped up his stint with Richard Childress Racing and he was turning laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway with his new team in a rare December test. Any anxiety he had over leaving RCR after 13 years vanished.

"I told them on lap 2 at Charlotte, 'Thank you guys very much. You have just confirmed every reason that I came here to drive this car,'" Harvick said.

Nearly 15 months after his surprising decision to leave Childress to drive for good friend Tony Stewart, Harvick will finally make his SHR debut this weekend at Daytona International Speedway. His first race will be Saturday night's exhibition Sprint Unlimited, the first of two Speedweeks races Harvick won a year ago in his so-called "lame duck" season.

He felt all season that nobody had high expectations for him back then and proved everyone wrong with four wins. Now, with the slate wiped clean, he has made clear what he's chasing at SHR.

"I expect to win and race for a championship," Harvick said. "That's why I came here."

Very few will make the mistake of overlooking Harvick this season, for two very different reasons.

He has established himself as one of the top closers in the business, and many of his wins have come from being in the right place to capitalize in the waning laps. That will come into play in this year's overhauled NASCAR scoring system, which will reward winning over consistency - all the way to the dramatic winner-take-all season finale.

NASCAR Chairman Brian France has revamped the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship into a 16-driver elimination system that will be whittled down to four eligible drivers racing for the title in the finale. The first one across the finish line takes the grand prize.

A driver can make the Chase by winning a race, and can advance in the Chase by winning during the elimination rounds.

It's a system that could - albeit temporarily - stall Jimmie Johnson's quest for a record-tying seventh Cup title.

It also may suit Harvick perfectly.

"He shows up for the big games," said Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at SHR. "He can rise up at the end of the race, he can rise up for the big races. I think that'll help drive our company, our group to a better product week in, week out."

And all eyes will be on SHR this year as the team, which struggled last year after expanding to three cars with the addition of Danica Patrick, swells to four full-time teams with four high-profile drivers.

Stewart, who missed the final 15 races of last season with a broken leg suffered in a sprint car crash, has been cleared to race again and will be back in his car Friday for the first time since the August accident. He will race in Saturday night's exhibition with many wondering if the three-time champion will return as the same fearless driver.

Stewart also has his third crew chief since he won the 2011 championship and an entirely different race organization than the one he had before his injury.

Gone from the roster is Ryan Newman, the driver Stewart personally lured to the team when he joined Gene Haas as co-owner in 2009. Newman is now driving for Childress and, while Stewart was recovering from his injuries, Haas added Kurt Busch to the roster in a new fourth car that Haas will pay for.

Yup, the driver Stewart once punched in the head on the opening day of Speedweeks is now his teammate and employee.

And things weren't always rosy between Harvick and Busch. That relationship was mended last year as the two worked together through an RCR partnership, and they developed such a respect for one another that Harvick vouched for Busch to Stewart. They've also got Patrick in the fold, and while the three heavyweights will be vying for the championship, it will be an organizational goal to help Patrick improve on last year's 27th-place finish in the final Cup standings.

Stewart believes any worries about SHR turning into a circus act are misguided.

"We are putting a collection of talent together. There are flaws in all of us," he said. "As much as people are making it out to be a recipe for disaster, I think it's the opposite. I think it's a huge support system for each other."

That similar system has worked at Hendrick Motorsports, where Johnson has won six of the last eight championships. A seventh title would tie him with Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

He doesn't believe the change to the Chase format is designed to stop him, nor does he believe it will hinder his record-setting opportunity.

"When I look at the years we've won championships, we've won a lot of races. We've won a lot of races in the Chase," Johnson said. "And the way this format plays out, we would have that opportunity come Homestead. So this could be something very good for us. If we can keep our stats like they've been, and the process we've used, it could be very good for us."

It could also be good for Dale Earnhardt Jr., his teammate who turns 40 this October still seeking his first Sprint Cup title. If the new Chase format had been applied last season, Earnhardt would have been the champion.

"I feel like I am on the verge of breaking through and having possibly one of my best seasons," Earnhardt said. "Maybe it's just the stars aligning or fate that they're making these changes and maybe we just have the type of season we need to have to be the guy at Homestead holding the trophy."

This year also marks the return of the No. 3 to the track in the Sprint Cup Series. The number has not been used at NASCAR's highest level since Earnhardt's fatal accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, but it is back with Austin Dillon and the Childress organization.

Childress is adamant that Earnhardt had a succession plan for his famed number, and that Childress' grandson is the perfect driver to use the No. 3. Dillon has used it throughout his career and won the Nationwide Series title last season with the number.

Fan responses can be mixed to the use of the No. 3, but Dillon is certain he's doing the right thing.

"Everybody has the right to their own opinion and I've had enough good responses for me to be confident in what I'm doing and going after," Dillon said. "I'm happy at this point and excited to see what happens at Daytona. I feel like I'm ready."
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