mostlycloudy
Saturday August 29th, 2015 4:58PM

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

By Jenna Fryer, AP Auto Racing Writer
Related Articles
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."
© Copyright 2015 AccessWDUN.com
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
2014 Top 10: Looking back at the top sports stories of the year
It was another year for the record books in 2014, mostly for the right reasons -- state championships, new challenges and new stars taking their turn to shine. But there were also plenty of big stories that reminded us that sports -- like life -- isn
11:55PM ( 7 months ago )
NASCAR K&N Pro Series schedules set for 2015
DAYTONA BEACH, FL - NASCAR announced recently the 2015 schedules for its top developmental regional touring series, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and NASCAR K&N Pro Series West.
2:00PM ( 7 months ago )
Lanierland boys final: Johnson makes history with win over Red Elephants <b> (VIDEO) </b>
Ever the aggressor on the court, Johnson
8:55AM ( 7 months ago )
Sports
Pits will be tight as Chili Bowl entry count hits 316
TULSA, OK - The 29th annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals presented by General Tire is on track to be a record smashing event, with the entry count climbing over the 300 mark for the first time to 316 entries confirming 303 drivers for the indoor spectacular happening Tuesday, January 13 through Saturday, January 17 at the Tulsa Expo Center in Tulsa, OK.
9:59AM ( 7 months ago )
Falcons fire Mike Smith after 2nd straight losing season
Mike Smith's status as the winningest coach in Falcons history wasn't enough to save his job. Owner Arthur Blank said he fired Smith on Monday because in his "heart of hearts" he didn't believe Smith could take the Falcons to the Super Bowl.
7:58PM ( 7 months ago )
New promoters in place for 2015 at Senoia Raceway
SENOIA, GA - Lease papers have been signed and a team of new promoters is in place for the upcoming stock car racing season at Senoia Raceway in Senoia, GA.
6:00AM ( 8 months ago )
Professional Sports
Garbo, Jr. to compete in NASCAR K&N East with Whelen sponsorship
CHARLOTTE, NC--(BUSINESS WIRE)-- When Marsh Racing and longtime team sponsor Whelen Engineering Company, Inc. got the opportunity to put together a race team for 2015, they looked closely at the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.
12:00PM ( 8 months ago )
Former NASCAR racer pleads guilty in high-speed chase
ST. GEORGE, UT (AP)
12:51PM ( 8 months ago )
Chili Bowl entry list again nearing record 300 mark
TULSA, OK - For the past couple years, the entry list for the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals has flirted with the 300 mark. Once again, the number of teams registering for the indoor Midget event is nearing the three century mark with 285 entries received for the 29th annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals.
11:59AM ( 8 months ago )
NASCAR News
Kurt Buschs ex seeks no-contact order at hearing
DOVER, DE (AP)
12:27PM ( 8 months ago )
Sprint to end NASCAR sponsorship after 2016 season
CHARLOTTE, NC (AP)
2:54PM ( 8 months ago )
Sprint Unlimited field features Chase drivers for 2015
DAYTONA BEACH, FL - Coming off an exciting 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup finale, NASCAR announced Monday all 16 Chase drivers will be eligible to compete in the 2015 Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.
12:00PM ( 8 months ago )
Sprint Cup
Week 1: Big wins, tough losses mark full start of 2015 prep football season
The season got started with a bang for some area high school football teams – while others will be going back to the drawing board after a mix of results for northeast Georgia-based programs.
9:02AM ( 7 hours ago )
VIDEO: Turnovers key to Spartans win over Knights
If only Johnson could erase the final four minutes of the second quarter.
8:13AM ( 8 hours ago )
VIDEO: Gainesville blanked again by Grayson, hopes to rebound again
Gainesville football took plenty of lessons from last year’s loss to Grayson. The Red Elephants hope they can do the same this time around...
7:48AM ( 9 hours ago )
VIDEO: Falcons storm back to knock off Chestatee in season opener
Flowery Branch exploded for 34 unanswered second half points to erase a 3-0 halftime deficit to beat Chestatee 34-10 Friday night in both teams’ season openers.
By AccessWDUN Staff
7:15AM ( 9 hours ago )
Wildcats explode for big win over Hab Central
Rabun County scored 35 unanswered points to erase an early deficit and beat Habersham Central 42-14 Friday night.
By AccessWDUN staff
6:56AM ( 10 hours ago )