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Kevin Harvick drives the number 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 1, 2010 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Todd Warshaw/Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kevin Harvick drives the number 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 1, 2010 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Todd Warshaw/Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Motorsports

Harvick Sprints to the top Add to ...

Anyone wondering how much things can change in a year should ask NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick.

Seventeen races into the 2009 Sprint Cup season, Harvick had no wins and only two top 10 finishes. That had him mired in 27th place overall with 1,598 points, 926 behind leader Tony Stewart.

Fast-forward 12 months and Harvick is leading the Sprint Cup standings with 2,498 points, after taking one win and 12 top-10 results in a season he described as "A-plus" compared to last year.

"We would have to sit here for a while to say everything that we have changed to make everything better but in the end I think it's awesome to see the 180-degree turn that the whole organization has taken," Harvick said.

"And that credit has to go to (team owner) Richard (Childress) for making the management changes and the structure changes throughout the organization to use the tools that we have correctly and he kind of stepped back and really just let everybody do their job."

And that formula has delivered the two-time NASCAR Nationwide champion's best chance to win a Cup title since he broke into the top tier series a decade ago. But Harvick, who finished fourth overall twice in his Sprint Cup career, knows it will take a huge effort to dethrone reigning four-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

"This is the best opportunity we've ever had to prepare for a championship because of where we are in the points," he said.

"I feel like the ball is in our court. Obviously you're going to have to knock off the (No.) 48 (Johnson). Those are the guys that have made it happen in the Chase and been consistent and won races and done what they have had to do over the last 10 weeks. Until somebody proves they can do that, those are the guys that you have to beat."

After struggling to adapt back to the rear spoiler that NASCAR put back on the Cup cars following three years with a wing bolted to the trunk of the Car of Tomorrow, Johnson has surged in recent races. He heads to Saturday's Coke Zero 400 at the 2.5-mile, tri-oval Daytona International Speedway in second place overall and riding a two-race winning streak.

The change in fortune came after Johnson stopped trying to make things happen behind the wheel rather than getting the most out of his car and hoping things would come together in the end.

"There are certain tracks that we're looking for a little speed at and that's just the way it always goes and I found that on those tracks, I was just driving over the limit of the vehicle and over my head - a little cocky - thinking I can slide this car around all day long and get away with it, and it bit me a couple times. So that led to the poor finishes," he said.

"I told myself after Charlotte that I can't drive at eleven-tenths, it's not possible. Bringing it home on a hook with 30th-something points isn't going to do anybody any good."

With Johnson seemingly back in a groove, he won't make it easy on his challengers. Johnson has dominated the Cup for the past four years, winning 29 times in 144 starts and taking 94 top-10 finishes on his way to four straight titles. Even with his early slump, Johnson still has five wins in 17 starts this year and would be seeded first in the Chase for the Cup.

The Chase pits the top 12 in a 10-race playoff style shootout to decide the season champion. The top 12 drivers have their points reset to 5,000 at the end of 26 races, with a 10-point bonus added for each win.

And when the Chase begins, Johnson seems to pull out an extra gear in his car and leave his challengers smelling his exhaust fumes.

That's why Harvick feels he needs to win a couple more races this season if he's going to challenge for the championship. But he's not going to make the same mistake as Johnson did earlier this year and start pushing too hard.

"I learned this lesson the hard way this year at California: We had not won in a while, I tried to force the issue, and made a mistake and cost ourselves a chance to win instead of being patient," he said.

"You just have to run good, run consistent and run hard and put yourself in position to win, and, you know, we have won 13, 14 races in a year between the Nationwide car and the Cup car and some years you only win one or two, so you have to be in position and how many you win is just how the cards fall."

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