As a rookie in the Nationwide (then Busch) Series in 2000, Kevin Harvick almost always had a goofy, gee-whiz grin on his face, which prompted his crew to call him Happy. The nickname stuck. But during the last two years the tag was an inside joke in the NASCAR garage because Harvick, who didn't win a Cup race in '08 or '09, was a surly frown machine, as irascible as any driver in the sport. Midway through last season the man who had won 11 Cup races and twice made the Chase was so upset with the poor quality of his race cars—he finished 19th in points—that he strongly hinted he would leave his team, Richard Childress Racing, when his contract expired at the end of the 2010 season. Happy he was not.
But there he was late on Sunday afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, grinning as if he'd just hit the jackpot as he climbed out of his number 29 Chevy. Moments earlier he'd finished second in the Shelby American behind Jimmie Johnson. Starting 34th, Harvick, who had won the Nationwide race at Vegas last Saturday, steadily drove through the field and showed as much straight-line speed—his hallmark this year—as any other driver. Three races into the schedule, Harvick has three top 10s and sits atop the Sprint Cup standings, leading his RCR teammate Clint Bowyer by 47 points. He has been, without question, the surprise of the young season. "Last year was pretty much a lost season for our organization," says Harvick, 34. "But we made big changes, and they all seemed to work."
Harvick's problems last year actually developed before the 2009 season. That winter RCR built a fleet of 50 new cars for its four drivers, but once the cars rolled onto the track, they had two significant flaws: They wobbled in traffic, and they didn't turn through the corners as effectively as rival cars. "There wasn't one thing wrong with our cars—it was everything: the chassis, the bodies, you name it," says Harvick's crew chief, Gil Martin. "If you've ever been on the interstate and felt your car shake when you pass a semi, well, that's how it felt for Kevin. So we had to build 40 new cars."
Harvick first drove the new design at Indianapolis last July. On his first practice lap he knew that the problems had been solved. "I just sailed through the corner," he says. "I was like, 'Yes, we've got it!'" Harvick finished sixth in that race—his best result in four months—and ended the season with two top fives in the last three starts.
This year Harvick has been the most dominant force in NASCAR. His Nationwide team, Kevin Harvick Inc., has won two of the first three races, and in the Cup series he had arguably the best car at both Daytona (he finished seventh after losing the draft late) and Fontana (where he was running down Johnson in the final moments but scrubbed the wall and came in second).
The final laps on Sunday were nearly a replay of Fontana, as Harvick was closing on Johnson when the four-time champ crossed the finish line. Afterward Harvick, watching Johnson perform a celebratory burnout, unleashed another grin. "We're getting closer," he said as he eyed Johnson. "We can run with Jimmie. I know we can, and he definitely knows we can."
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Jeff Gordon(below) led more laps on Sunday (218 of 267) than he has in any race since 2003. He ended up third, for his first top 10 finish of the season.... Jimmie Johnson's win at Las Vegas was the 15th of his career on a 1.5-mile track, making him the alltime leader in that category (Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Gordon each have 14 victories).... Danica Patrick took 36th in last Saturday's Nationwide race after colliding with Michael McDowell and hitting the wall. The accident wasn't her fault, but it led to her third straight finish of 30th or worse. Patrick will now focus on the IndyCar Series before returning to NASCAR in June. She remains a work in progress but has shown improvement in every race. On Saturday she ran as high as third. Her grade for her first stint in stock cars? A solid B.
JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES (CARS)
LEADING MAN After three races, Harvick (Pennzoil car) has the jump on Johnson (Lowe's)—and his smile back.
CHRISTA L THOMAS/ASP/CAL SPORT MEDIA (HARVICK)
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE (GORDON)