CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Kevin Harvick is right where he usually is when the Coca-Cola 600 rolls around on the schedule: On top and seeking even more success.
The defending Sprint Cup champion leads the points race heading into NASCAR’s longest event at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday night. He has won twice, marking the fourth time in the past five seasons Harvick will enter June with multiple victories. He is seeking his third Coca-Cola 600 win since 2011.
Harvick said early victories end concerns about qualifying for the NASCAR’s 10-race playoffs and give teams the chance to find that extra uumph they’ll need for a championship run.
“It’s definitely better to win early,” Harvick said Thursday. “There’s not a lot of pressure on your race team with what you need to do or how you need to do things. It’s really about finding more speed, winning more races.”
Harvick already has plenty of speed. He has finished first or second in eight of 11 races this season. Harvick has had just one run worse than eighth, when got caught up in a mid-race accident at Bristol Motor Speedway and finished 38th.
Such early dominance is typical of Harvick. He won three races in 2011 in the season’s first three months, then two apiece in 2013 and 2015.
Harvick showed his power last Saturday night at the All-Star race, going from last at the start of final 10-lap segment to second. Harvick could not get past winner Denny Hamlin, but he said his Stewart-Haas Racing team picked up critical knowledge that can lead to success Sunday night.
Then again, Harvick knows several ways to win at the mile-and-a-half layout.
He looked destined for second place here in 2011 with Dale Earnhardt Jr. well in front and cruising on the white-flag lap. But Earnhardt ran out of fuel and Harvick swept past for the win.
Two years later, Harvick outraced Kasey Kahne on a restart with 11 laps win for his second Coca-Cola 600 — a race perhaps best remembered for the stoppage caused when a TV support cable snapped during the event.
Harvick was second behind Jimmie Johnson at the 600 a year ago. In the fall, Harvick made amends with a victory at Charlotte on the way to his first-ever Sprint Cup championship.
Johnson, who has won three times including the last points race at Kansas two weeks ago, figures to be near the top battling with Harvick on Sunday night.
Johnson said the race’s length suits him since he and longtime crew chief Chad Knaus are adept at making midrace adjustments and finding missing power.
“I do a nice job searching for lines” at Charlotte, Johnson said. “I think we’ll have a strong night.”
Harvick is enjoying the perks of his championship this weekend, getting a ballot in Wednesday’s NASCAR Hall of Fame voting that elected Speedway Motorsports Inc. visionary Bruton Smith among five new members. Harvick said he can’t wait for the fiery Smith’s acceptance speech.
“That’s going to be the most entertaining part,” he said with a grin.
Harvick said he is glad he and the crew gave his team a cushion to prep for the championship Chase. With crew chief Rodney Childers at the helm, Harvick is confident he will be right there at the end — both in Charlotte and in the championship run.
“It worked well for us last year,” Harvick said. “And I think my guy’s pretty dangerous, the more time you give him to think and do that in a relaxed atmosphere, it really lets him shine.”
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