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Harvick's team has all the makings of a champion

May 30, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Second full season together has the No. 29 crew running on all cylinders

It was an odd sight, but one that made Richard Childress smile.

In the ultimate display of teamwork, as Kevin Harvick attempted to save gas for the final laps of Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Childress looked out onto the 1.5-mile track and saw three of his Richard Childress Racing cars lined up bumper-to-bumper during the caution period that preceded the final restart. Harvick teammates Paul Menard and Jeff Burton were pushing Harvick from behind in an effort to help Harvick save fuel in his No. 29 Chevrolet.

"It's just the chemistry and the way that everybody is on this race team. Money can't buy that."

--KEVIN HARVICK

No one will ever know for certain how much it helped, but it very well could have provided the difference that enabled Harvick to stretch his fuel mileage to the finish line of NASCAR's longest race when others couldn't. Harvick inherited the lead when Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of gas on the backstretch of the final lap, and then cruised to his Sprint Cup series-high third victory of the season that is only 12 races old.

"This whole race was probably as competitive of a 600 that I've witnessed," said Childress, who has fielded cars in the race that is one of NASCAR's crown jewel events for more than three decades. "All night long the field kept changing at the front. But to see our cars working together, that's what an owner loves to see and wants to see.

"It was all legal. You can do what we were doing there. You just can't push somebody across [the finish line to take] the checkered flag to win it on the last lap. ... But it was pretty neat to see everybody work together, and I'm sure they're happy to see Kevin win."

Championship material

Harvick and the No. 29 team know all about the value of teamwork. Harvick finished a career-high third in points last season, when he entered the final race of the season at Homestead with a chance to overtake leader Denny Hamlin and eventual champion Jimmie Johnson.

But whereas last year the No. 29 team had the feel of a group that had just crashed a party to which they weren't invited and perhaps didn't quite belong, this year they are proving that it was no fluke. Through the first third of this season, they've now won one-fourth of the races and displayed real championship-contending mettle.

So if they are in the hunt at the end of this season, it will be no surprise. And it appears if they are in the hunt again at the end of this season, they will have a better grasp on what it takes to get the job done and bring Johnson's five-year reign as champion to an end.

Early in Sunday's race, Harvick was in a foul mood. He particularly took offense to crew chief Gil Martin's efforts to make a two-tire pit stop instead of the usual four, which was done in an effort to gain track position. The car wasn't handling right, and Harvick lamented over the team radio in no uncertain terms that the problem had persisted for the entire past two-week period he had been racing at CMS, and he wasn't pleased about it.

"It's the same thing we've been fighting. We haven't fixed this in the two weeks," Harvick told Martin.

"Well," deadpanned Martin in return, "we've got four more hours and we're going to fix you right up."

It took some time, and no more two-tire stops. But eventually Martin delivered. And in the meantime, no one took umbrage with Harvick's tough radio talk. They merely worked through the problem and put Harvick in position to take advantage of Earnhardt's misfortune at the end.

"Honestly, it's great to be a part of this team because everybody knows who I am," Harvick said. "They don't get down on me, and nobody gets really down on each other.

"And if we wouldn't have won the race, everybody would have went home and we would have said we'd do this different or that different and we'd have all smiled about it by the time we got done at 8 o'clock Monday morning after our competition meeting."

Special chemistry

It's hard to believe that it's been barely a year since Harvick agreed to a contract extension that kept him at RCR -- after rumors had flown for months that he was unhappy and might leave. The driver credits Martin -- who became his crew chief in April of 2009 -- with not only holding the team together during trying times, but actually building unity along the way. Last season was Martin's first full season as Harvick's crew chief.

"I think all these guys have learned the same thing, that we can sit up in the lounge [of the 29 hauler] and we can throw punches and take them pretty easily with each other and nobody gets offended," Martin said. "And 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 guys [in the media] interviews 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."

They worked their way through it like a championship team. On a night when Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, apologized to his driver over the radio for "this Keystone Cops [expletive] we had going on here" in the pits after one particularly costly mistake, the 29 team kept battling and ended up on top in a race that traditionally spells trouble for Harvick. He finished second in his first Coca-Cola 600 a decade ago -- and then went nine years without another top-10 finish in the event until winning it Sunday night.

He credited team chemistry for it, and for his ability to win three times already this season despite having led the grand total of only nine laps in those three particular races.

"It's just the chemistry and the way that everybody is on this race team. Money can't buy that," Harvick said. "When you have a race team like that, well, I've never had that where you feel everything jel and you feel everything come together and you race for a championship and do everything that you do. It's not about having the fastest car all the time. Sometimes it's just about believing in everybody around you and putting yourself in position to win.

"And these guys have put us in position to win a lot, and we've been able to do that over the past couple years. If we aren't winning, we still can take something out of a race. The championship teams are when you can take a 15th-place car and you can finish fifth with it. And that's what we did [Sunday]."

Actually, no, it wasn't. They took what they had and won with it. And now they're looking more and more like they may just be able to take what they have and win the biggest trophy of all.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.