Commentary

Kevin Harvick's stirring the Chase pot

Updated: November 16, 2010, 2:26 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Don't let Kevin Harvick fool you. "Happy" is playing mind games just like Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin with two races remaining in the Chase.

Maybe better.

Just look at what Harvick wrote on Twitter earlier this week regarding comments Hamlin's crew chief made about Johnson's midrace pit crew change with Jeff Gordon's team at Texas Motor Speedway being an act of desperation, among other things.

"Man, it looks like Mike Ford grew some b---- this week in the media center calling the 48 out … pretty cocky with two to go," Harvick wrote.

One could argue Harvick was stirring the pot.

You know he was.

And he continued to stir on Friday at Phoenix International Raceway, where he is 59 points behind Chase leader Hamlin.

[+] EnlargeKevin Harvick
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesKevin Harvick on the Denny Hamlin-Jimmie Johnson battle: "We have everything to gain. Those two guys obviously are going back at each other. We're sitting back hopefully doing what we need to do."

"The only good thing that comes from being cocky like that is you better win, because if you don't you're going to have to answer a lot about the comments when you get done," the Richard Childress Racing driver said matter-of-factly. "When you're trying to intimidate the guy who has won four championships in a row, you might need to rethink your strategy and just go out and worry about racing.

"It's really not something that is probably necessary."

Harvick continued to stir by reminding us that it was Ford who got upset with Hamlin at Dover for disrupting the No. 11 team when his driver strongly suggested that Clint Bowyer's RCR team intentionally cheated to win at New Hampshire.

Ford also wasn't happy at Michigan when Hamlin suggested some of his Joe Gibbs Racing cars were built better than others, saying of his driver, "My 14-year-old has as much knowledge about cars as [he] does."

Yes, Harvick has done his homework. He knows the more Hamlin and Johnson focus on each other, the better chance he has of being overlooked and passing them both.

"It's one thing to be cocky around your team," Harvick said. "But when you want to be cocky publicly, you have one way to go and that's to back it up, and you are not going to back it up in this sport forever.

"There's just nothing to be gained from it as far as a team standpoint. It's a crew chief, for god's sake. I just don't understand, I guess."

Harvick may not understand why Ford said what he said, but he understands what he is doing now. There may be nobody better in the garage at playing mind games and doing it with a straight face.

When asked about his crew chief, Gil Martin, Harvick said, "He's very good with people, and that can be my shortfall sometimes."

Perhaps, but Harvick is brilliant at using people for the sake of mind games. He knows it, too. He knows he's in a good spot everywhere but the point standings because the focus is all on Hamlin and Johnson, who is 33 back of the lead.

He'll use the pressure that Hamlin and Johnson must feel to his advantage.

"The pressure on our team is very low," Harvick said. "We're not going to finish worse than where we are in points. We have everything to gain. Those two guys obviously are going back at each other.

"We're sitting back hopefully doing what we need to do."

What Harvick needs to do is exactly what he has been doing -- compiling the best average finish among the three contenders and tossing in a win for those most valuable bonus points. He then needs Hamlin and Johnson to have problems.

Outside of that, mind games may be his best weapon.

"I don't freaking care," Ford said Friday. "That's what he's known for."

That's not what Ford is known for, which made his comments all the more surprising, even to his driver.

"Maybe a little bit because hes so softspoken he never really says much," Hamlin said. "He never really voices much opinion to the public. That was probably a big, big emotional win for him as a crew chief. At that point, when he won that race, he was pretty proud of his team.

"He is gonna say my team is better. Any crew chief that doesn't have confidence that their team is the best, they have no motivation and probably are not a good crew chief. … I'll stand behind anything he says in regard to our team."

To be fair, Ford makes a good defense for his comments, arguing nobody has stood up to Johnson's team the past four years. But there's standing up and then there's throwing it in the face.

This was throwing it in the face.

"I didn't do anything but speak the truth," Ford said. "If you think that's cocky of me, I don't care. It's time to go. That's it. … I'm not going to get in the middle of any s---. It is what it is. It's competition. It's no mind games and none of that crap that everyone circulates."

If you thought Hamlin was the outspoken one on the No. 11 team, forget it. As Ford said, "There is nobody in here who has more emotion than I have. I just control it."

Until now. What he said during Sunday's postrace press conference has provided bulletin-board fodder that college football and NFL coaches dream of, comments that Harvick and Johnson are using for motivation.

As Harvick said, it wasn't necessary, particularly coming to a track where Johnson has won four of the past six races.

"Believe me, we have used those comments as motivation inside of Hendrick Motorsports," Johnson said. "There's been plenty of references to comments made. Guys are thinking about it during sets in the gym, when they're changing tires on pit stops.

"There's been plenty of e-mails internally. It's been a great motivational tool."

[+] EnlargeMike Ford and Denny Hamlin
Jason Smith/Getty ImagesDenny Hamlin, right, and crew chief Mike Ford shook up the Chase with last week's victory at Texas.

It definitely gave Harvick and others at RCR something to latch onto. They're like coyotes in the Arizona desert, waiting for the prey to be weakened by the heat and then pouncing for the kill.

"I wouldn't open my mouth and say that for a million dollars," said Todd Berrier, Jeff Burton's crew chief at RCR. "All you do is put your foot in it."

Martin doesn't seem to mind the distraction around his fellow championship crew chiefs.

"If we have to fly under the radar to get there, so be it," he said. "They can fight it out with you guys."

When NASCAR declared "have at it, boys" before the season, officials probably didn't expect it to mean crew chiefs. That things are spicing up off the track as much as they are on the track adds more drama than the governing body could hope for the final two weekends.

That Harvick may be the best at keeping things stirred when he's not in the middle opens the door for a three-driver showdown at Homestead-Miami that we haven't seen since the inaugural Chase in 2004, when Kurt Busch beat Johnson by eight points and Gordon by 16.

Even fellow competitors are getting a kick out of it.

"Darrell Waltrip will tell you the best mind games to play are at the end of the year," said Kyle Busch, seventh in the standings.

"Jaws" was an expert at those in the day, and Harvick is the modern-day version. He's so good that Burton doesn't even consider them mind games.

"I don't know if Kevin is playing mind games," he said. "He is just telling you how he feels. That is the cool thing about Kevin … you know exactly where you stand and exactly how he feels.

"He's not a mind game kind of guy. He's just straight at you -- this is how it is, this is how I feel."

Burton also said he didn't intentionally wreck Gordon last weekend at Texas, even though Gordon insists that was the case.

Having personally been the target of Harvick's mind games, I can vouch that the guy is an expert. He's calculated in what he says and does.

"Whatever it takes to gain is what you do on the racetrack and what you do off the racetrack," Harvick said. "There's really nothing else that matters at this point. Just throw it all out there, and if it gets rough, it gets rough.

"It's still a no-pressure, no-lose situation for us, and I like it. I like coming from behind."

Mind-game masters usually do.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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