If you throw out Kevin Harvick's dismal 2002 campaign, it's clear that this time of year is his time of year. Even when he comes out of the gates a little slow, it's right about now -- with seven races down -- that his team clicks and makes its push for title contention.
This year, that's a particularly scary thought for his competitors. At eighth in the standings, he's higher in points than he's ever been at this point in his previous three Cup seasons. Heading into the Advance Auto Parts 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Harvick knows that he's getting that push-to-the-front type effort from his team. It's up to him not to screw things up.
And while in past seasons fans may have feared a Harvick blowup that could sit him out for a race or lead to points deductions and the like, these aren't concerns, anymore. As the series heads to Martinsville, now's a better time than ever to point out that the driver of the No. 29 Chevy has matured, and isn't likely to fumble things for his team.
Unlike the uninhibited spirit that was put on probation in 2001 and forced to sit out this Martinsville race in 2002, the Harvick that races before you today has a deeper understanding of how to control his passion -- at least until he gets home.
"It's almost scary to sit back and think about it sometimes," Harvick said of the altercation following the 2002 Busch Series race at Martinsville which led to NASCAR suspending him for the next day's Cup event. "I still have my moments where I blow up or get mad, but I think everybody has those moments. It's part of everyday life. That time was a pretty big moment in my whole life. To sit at home, watch that race and not be in it was pretty disappointing. It was like a big reality check.
"The good thing is that NASCAR still wants me to be myself, be aggressive and speak what's on my mind. The fact of the matter is that it's still their court and you have to play by their rules. ... Over the last few years, I've learned you have to carry some things back to your house and vent away from everything. Martinsville and Bristol are two places that bring out a lot of emotion and I like that. You just have to see what happens and hope you can handle the situation in the right way."
Over the years, Harvick has gained the trust of his race team that he will handle his emotions in the right way. As for his driving skills, that was never in question.
"Tempers tend to flare throughout the race weekend with how tight the racing gets," Harvick's crew chief Todd Berrier said. "It's typical short track racing, and we're glad we have Harvick behind the wheel because we know how well he runs on them."
Harvick posted his best finish of the season at another short track -- a third-place finish at Bristol. He brings that same chassis to Martinsville, and hopes that the car will finally get him into victory lane this year.
"It's been an up-and-down season to say the least," Harvick said. "...We had a chance to win at Las Vegas and ran out of gas. That was a little disappointing that we didn't get to finish where we had run all day. Atlanta was our biggest struggle of the year. We missed it there for some reason. We had a really good car in Happy Hour and came back the next morning and couldn't get anything. We haven't won a race yet."
Still, Harvick and Co. have hope. Their season has been pretty solid so far. Unlike his teammates -- rookie Johnny Sauter and Robby Gordon -- who are both subject to rumors of firing after slow starts, Harvick is poised for perhaps his best season ever. Aside from Vegas and Atlanta, the finishes have all been in the top 15. And most of these finishes came after horrible starts where the crew had their work cut out for them to get the 29 in position to compete.
"We've struggled a little bit in the beginning part of the races and then have seemed to get our cars where they needed to be toward the end of the races," Harvick said. "... The team has shown a lot of promise just because of the fact that we can take our cars at the beginning of the race when we think they're terrible and then turned them around a couple of times and make top 10, top five runs out of them. That's a good sign for a race team."
Harvick said the team feels a little more pressure to find a groove and make that push toward the top of the standings given the new championship setup. Only drivers in the top 10 through 26 events get to compete for the title.
"Everything that we're doing now is to position ourselves for the top 10 for the end of the year and making sure we've got our cars where we need to have them," Harvick said. "We need to maintain ourselves for where we need to be. Not that we're not trying to win races, it's just that we know that the ultimate picture is the last 10 races. So, you just have to do what we have to do.
"We came back after Texas and had a brand new car sitting in the shop getting ready to go to the paint shop for California, and we came back and cut the whole body off of it and they're working hard to put a new body on it. That's what it's all about. You have to do what you need to do to position yourself in the right place at the end of the year."
Given the streak he's on, there's every reason to believe he can maintain a spot in the top 10 come title chase time. Harvick, who owns the record for consecutive races in the Busch Series without a DNF, has finished 46 straightCup races.
"Hopefully we don't end it (at Martinsville)," Harvick said. "Building good race cars has always been one of the fortes of (Richard Childress Racing). They do whatever it takes to finish the race no matter what. That's what keeps us in a lot of these championship battles."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.