Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - After making just his second start with Stewart-Haas Racing, Kevin Harvick is virtually guaranteed of clinching a spot in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship by winning at Phoenix International Raceway.
Harvick put on a dominating performance in Sunday's race at Phoenix, leading 224 of 312 laps, including the final 64. He pulled away from the field in four late-race restarts and then held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the closing laps to win a Sprint Cup Series event at this 1-mile oval for a record fifth time.
Last week, Earnhardt all but guaranteed himself a berth in the 10-race Chase by winning the season-opening Daytona 500. NASCAR made sweeping changes to the playoff format for its premier series this year by expanding the field of drivers/teams from 12 to 16.
Harvick's No. 4 team, led by crew chief Rodney Childers, is newly formed at SHR, but it has made quite a statement in the early season.
"I think as you go through time, the sky's the limit for this team, because everybody is still trying to learn each other's names, let alone what's going on with the race car," Harvick said. "They all know the parts and pieces of the race car they're working on. But I guarantee you, if you lined them all up, there would not be one person on that team that knew everybody's name."
After driving for Richard Childress Racing in Cup from 2001-13, Harvick moved over to SHR to drive the No. 4 Chevrolet and team with Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch, who came to SHR after spending a full season with Furniture Row Racing last year.
Childers is new to SHR following his two-year crew chief stint with Michael Waltrip Racing's No. 55 team.
Harvick and Childers have clicked right off the bat, showing speed during preseason testing at Charlotte and Daytona. Harvick finished 13th in the Daytona 500. He was fastest in both practice sessions on Saturday at Phoenix.
"We've been to three tests and two races now, and don't think I've asked (Harvick) one time how he wanted to set a car up yet," Childers said. "It's our job. He doesn't need to be worried about that. He needs to get in the car and drive as fast as he can, not have to worry about it. But on the other hand, we've had good communication through all of it."
Harvick continued to be impressive at Phoenix. Four months ago, he won there in his penultimate race with RCR. Harvick also took the checkered flag for the fall 2012 event at Phoenix. He has four Camping World Truck Series victories and one in the Nationwide Series there as well.
"I feel like when I come here with Trucks, Nationwide, Cup, these are the types of racetracks I was brought up on," Harvick said. "We used to come here for the Copper Classic, the Winston West days. This was our Daytona 500. It's fun to come (to Phoenix). I feel like the flat track stuff is something that we've had a good knack at."
Harvick's win at Phoenix last November kept him in alive in the championship battle. He entered the season-finale at Homestead trailing Jimmie Johnson by 34 points. Johnson went on to win his sixth Sprint Cup title by 19 points over Matt Kenseth and 34 ahead of Harvick, who finished 10th at Homestead.
With 24 career wins in Sprint Cup to his credit, including a victory in the 2007 Daytona 500, Harvick yearns for a championship in the series. He has two titles in Nationwide (2001 and '06).
Toward the end of the 2012 season, Harvick made the decision to leave RCR when the following season concluded. It had been widely rumored that Harvick would drive for SHR, which is owned by Stewart and Gene Haas, in 2014. SHR made the announcement of Harvick joining the team last July.
"I felt like I needed that enthusiasm to show up to work," Harvick said. "I get to do this with a lot of my friends, with Tony. I feel like we've had a great relationship in the past. He's driven my Nationwide cars. I feel like as we go through situations, I've learned that Tony is one of the smartest people that I know.
"I sat at a roulette wheel with Tony in Vegas about four weeks ago. I learned he's just short of 'Rain Man.' He doesn't say anything. He sits there and listens to everything you say, takes all these things in. I know I'm going to say something, and he's going to remember it four, five, six weeks down the road."
For Harvick, Childers and the No. 4 team to win right out of the gate came as a surprise to some but not all.
"Well, it took long enough," Haas jokingly said about Harvick's win coming in his second start with SHR. "This is phenomenal. I think there was a lot of skepticism last year about what myself and Tony, what we were up to. Was there a lot of madness to this? Quite frankly, I have to agree with Rodney, that it's a great team. There's a lot of synergy at the shop of people working together.
"I don't know what we did, but I think we put together a great organization. I'm very thankful for Rodney and Kevin for being the magic it takes to win these things. We'll make sure we don't disturb that."
Harvick certainly feels good now about his decision to join SHR.