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Harvick rolls to Loudon win, takes Chase lead

9/25/2006

LOUDON, N.H. -- Kevin Harvick saw the hole in front of him,
a small patch of open track between two other cars.

Driving through it would be risky, but Harvick has never shied
away from taking chances. So he shoved his Chevrolet in between
Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton, forcing his way to the front and
running away with the win Sunday at New Hampshire International
Speedway.

This is how Harvick plans to run for his first Nextel Cup title:
unafraid, unapologetic and with everything he's got.

"At this point, it's all about the championship and going for
it and throwing caution to the wind," Harvick said of his
three-wide pass just 37 laps into the race. "If you look back on
it, I probably wouldn't do that again."

Harvick turned New Hampshire International Speedway into his
personal playground, dominating the entire weekend to take the
early lead in NASCAR's Chase for the championship.

Harvick, who started from the pole and paced almost every
practice session, led 196 of the 300 laps to run away with the
first round of the 10-race Chase. He moved to the top of the points
standings for the first time in his career, and holds a 35-point
lead over rookie Denny Hamlin, who finished fourth.

"We sure have the momentum right now," said Harvick, who won
for the second straight week and fourth time this season. "We just
have to keep doing what we're doing. If we keep winning races,
we're not going to get outscored in points."

Defending series champion Tony Stewart, who did not make the
Chase this season and isn't eligible for the championship, finished
second in one of the more nerve-racking races of his career.
Although he wants to run hard these final 10 races, he's struggling
to find the balance between doing so and being respectful of the 10
drivers battling to take his title.

"I don't feel like we have to prove anything. I think 26
[career] wins and two championships is proof enough -- we just had a
bad year this year," he said. "It's just a matter of will at this
point. We want to go out and win races for ourselves.

"But it is a frustrating day when you are racing those guys
that are in the top 10 in points. You are just so cautious around
them and it is hard to race real hard and be around those guys,
worrying about getting into them."

Jeff Gordon was third and jumped all the way up to fourth in the
standings, the lone bright spot in an otherwise dismal day for
Hendrick Motorsports. Chase drivers Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson
both wrecked early, finished 38th and 39th, and dropped to the back
of the 10-driver championship field.

It was yet another heartbreaking blow for Johnson, who led the
standings for 22 weeks this year only to see his season fall apart
with the Nextel Cup on the line. Although he has nine weeks to race
back into contention, he knows how difficult it will be.

"Right now it looks like things are out of our control to get
back in this thing right now," said Johnson, 139 points out of the
lead. "I can only judge on how guys are running today, and all the
Chase guys are running up front.

"I hope I eat the words I said early on when I said, 'You can't
win the championship here in New Hampshire, but you can lose it
today.'"

Indeed, the championship can be lost in the first round of the
Chase, and it happened in each of the first two seasons of NASCAR's
new format.

Stewart, Ryan Newman and Jeremy Mayfield all were taken out of
contention in 2004 following an early accident at this 1.058-mile
oval. Then defending series champion Kurt Busch suffered the same
fate last season when he was wrecked moments into the race.

So the tone was set Sunday, with Harvick establishing early that
he's the driver to beat. The other Chase contenders held their own,
with everyone but Johnson and Busch finishing in the top 16.

Busch's day went bad on the very first lap, when he cut off Jeff Green and the contact caused enough damage to his Chevrolet that he
had to pit several times and dropped a lap down. A second accident
100 miles from the finish dropped him to a 38th-place finish.

Johnson, winner of the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard, had hoped
to celebrate his 31st birthday with a strong run. Instead, he lost
a cylinder early in the race to put his team on edge and afraid of
a total engine failure. But they didn't have to worry very long:
Johnson was run into the wall shortly after when Sterling Marlin
swerved to avoid hitting other cars.

The hard hit destroyed the No. 48 Chevrolet and demoralized a
team that had hoped this was finally its year to win that elusive
title. As crew chief Chad Knaus slumped in his seat on top of the
pit box, Johnson was coming to terms with how difficult it will be
to rebound.

But Gordon thinks its too early to count out his protege.

"Sometimes I think they do better when they are angry and get
behind," Gordon said.

Even if he does rebound, it will be hard for anyone to catch
Harvick, who won for the third time in the past six races and
second in a row.

And he proved early he's going to run hard for this title,
storming between teammate Burton and Hamlin, who wiggled to the
outside in the wake of the pass.

Hamlin thought it was too early to race that hard.

"It was real risky at the time," he said. "I was very
surprised that he did that. I didn't think he needed to do that to
show how strong he was. I think he could have passed me and
[Burton] in five laps fairly easy.

"But that's the way he wanted to get to the front in a
hurry."