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Fired-up NASCAR driver Harvick resets his Sprint Cup career

| Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Kevin Harvick walks by his car on pit road after qualifying for the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kevin Harvick drives with the mentality of a distance runner. He tucks in behind the lead pack to save fuel then charges to the lead with a furious kick.

Harvick is arguably the best closer on the Sprint Cup circuit.

Now, he's hoping to finish his final season with Richard Childress Racing with a flurry of victories. He's off to a fast start, winning the Sprint Unlimited race at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday.

Admittedly, his desire to win NASCAR's Super Bowl for the second time has spared him any complacency. In his 13th year with RCR, Harvick appears rejuvenated as he prepares to chase the 2013 Cup title before leaving for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

“I don't think it's been that big of a deal,” Harvick said, comparing his situation to Matt Kenseth, who signed with Joe Gibbs Racing while playing out the string at Roush-Fenway Racing last year. “For our side of it, it's our jobs to control the atmosphere and the things that go around.

“The atmosphere is great, honestly. Everybody is just working toward the same goal — that's winning the races. We have to be professional anyway, whether it's lame duck or not.

“You can call it whatever you want, we're going to have a (heck of a) lot of fun racing, having a good time, doing our jobs. It's (Childress) job is to put cars on the racetrack. My job is to drive them. His job is to make sure they run as fast as they can.”

Even though he couldn't generate the kind of speed most expected during qualifying for Sunday's Daytona 500, Harvick is in perfect position to lay back and let attrition thin out the 43-car field before squeezing every ounce of horsepower out of the No. 29 Chevrolet over the final laps.

It's a familiar tactic for Harvick. It's one he used to charge from behind to win the Great American Race in 2007.

At 37, Harvick seems more relaxed than he had the previous three seasons — a stretch that includes eight wins and two third-place finishes in the points standings. He, too, appears to have pushed the refresh button.

Harvick isn't nearly as uptight. Despite qualifying 25th during Sunday's time trials, Harvick wasn't upset he couldn't find more speed on his two-lap run, in part, because he knows Thursday's 150-mile qualifying duel races are an opportunity to reset the starting lineup.

Harvick, who has qualified for the Chase six of the past seven seasons, has loosened his button-down collar. He stepped out of his comfort zone to unleash a series of one-liners about the media's obsession with pole-sitter and teammate-to-be Danica Patrick's relationship with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

“(Patrick) knows when you are joking and poking fun,” Harvick said. “I get along great with her and Ricky. I was giving you guys (the media) more grief than I was her.

“Well, Tony (Stewart) and I are good friends. We always joke. Sometimes people can take it the wrong way, and I'm just glad she didn't take it the wrong way. It's fun.”

Patrick didn't seem to mind.

“I know Kevin really well, and so does Ricky,” Patrick said. “I am imagining it's like a big-brother role, where they're kind of joking around. I definitely feel like it's more of a fun sort of perspective.”

On Sunday, it'll be all business for Harvick. But he seems to be having more fun as prepares to transition from RCR to Stewart-Haas Racing.

“This is too hard to be miserable,” crew chief Gil Martin said. “It's too hard of work not to come out and try to win. That's not in his nature. That's not in our team's nature to try not to win.

“Anybody that thinks just because of what the situation is that anybody's going to lay down, they're sadly mistaken. We're going to try to win this championship. We're going to have fun doing it.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer forTrib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or on Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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