LOUDON, N.H. Kevin Harvick said Sunday he had enjoyed being an underdog in the race for the Nextel Cup championship.
Well, the fun is officially over.
"It nice to be under the radar," Harvick said after winning the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway, his fourth victory this season and second straight. "We really have never been in this position before. And maybe that's a good thing."
Harvick is correct. He came into the first Chase for the Nextel Cup race third in the standings, having never led in points in his Cup career.
After leading 196 of 300 laps and holding off Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon after a late restart, that's no longer true.
Since finishing 24th at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., July, Harvick has finished no worse than 15th, has won three times and has finished in the top five in seven of the past 10 races.
"It has been incredible," Harvick said. "The whole year has been just phenomenal. If it ended right now we'd be happy and know we have improved."
So much so that Harvick, who now leads rookie Denny Hamlin by 35 in points, must be considered a favorite to do something nobody has - win Cup and Busch titles in the same season. Harvick leads the Busch Series standings by a ridiculous 619 points.
After missing the Chase in each of the past two seasons, Harvick came into 2006 in the final year of his contract with Richard Childress Racing. He took a long, hard look at his future, actively considering other Cup rides, before re-signing with the team he came into the series with in 2001 after Dale Earnhardt's death.
"That's the best decision I've ever made," Harvick said.
Harvick and crew chief Todd Berrier also made good decisions Sunday with a car that distinguished itself by winning the pole on Friday and leading the speed charts in both practices on Saturday.
Harvick and teammate Jeff Burton tested at Milwaukee for the Chase opener, and between them, led 248 laps Sunday. Both were in the top five pretty much all day until Burton slipped back to seventh in the final laps.
Harvick messed things up on Lap 36, when he tried to pass Burton and Hamlin with a move in between them that was, at best, impatient.
"It seemed like a good idea in the center of the corner," Harvick said. "But the hole closed up in a hurry. By that point, though, I was committed. All I could do was hold the pedal down and hope for the best."
Hamlin had to do a little self-editing when he talked about that move later.
"It didn't cost me anything really, except about seven spots at the time," said Hamlin, a rookie, whose car shot up the track after he and Harvick swapped paint. "It's all good. Had it caused us a bad day? I would have probablynever mind."
Although it worked out for Harvick, who led all but five of the final 133 laps, and OK for Hamlin, two drivers who'd been in the Chase top five coming into the day weren't as fortunate.
Jimmie Johnson lost a cylinder in his engine early and then wound up in the wall on Lap 88. He came back with a battered car and finished 24 laps down in 39th.