Harvick was all smiles even before he nosed out Mark Martin to win this year’s Daytona 500.

Standing in the Sun
It was an immense shadow, and how it was cast made it even more overwhelming.

But Kevin Harvick found his way out into the sunlight, and he kicked off this year with a win in the biggest NASCAR race of them all – the Daytona 500.

When the 2001 Nextel Cup season began at Daytona, Harvick was preparing for his second year in the Busch Series and serving as an understudy to Dale Earnhardt in the Richard Childress Racing camp.

The idea was to hone his craft in the support series, then one day serve as Earnhardt’s teammate in stock car racing’s biggest league.

Then came the final lap of that Daytona 500.

Earnhardt, a seven-time Cup champion, was killed in a wreck within sight of the finish line. A week later, Harvick had evolved from understudy to the man charged with driving Earnhardt’s famous black Chevrolet.

Although Harvick will always be linked to “The Man in Black,” he has clearly established his own identity over the last six seasons. This year, with a new sponsor, the 32-year-old pilot has further distanced himself from the role of replacement driver.

“I think with a new sponsor [Shell and Pennzoil have taken the place of GM Goodwrench] it gets me out of that last shadow under Dale,” Harvick says. “It’s hard to beat down somebody else’s path when you’re used to beating down your own path.”

Harvick began his NASCAR career in 1995, debuting in the Craftsman Truck Series and racing on that circuit through 1998. His success caught the eye of Childress, who decided to put the California native into a Busch car in 2000.

A year later he not only took over for Earnhardt, winning his third Cup start at Atlanta, he also won the Busch Series championship as a sophomore.

In the years since, Harvick has remained a working man’s driver, competing in as many series as his schedule allows.

Taking his entire body of racing work into consideration, Harvick was the world’s most successful stock car pilot in 2006. Although Jimmie Johnson claimed the Nextel Cup crown, Harvick was in the thick of the title chase to the end, winning five races and scoring 15 showings in the top 5.

And as a regular in the Busch Series, Harvick dominated from start to finish, earning the overall title in a walk.

Last season also marked a revival of sorts for RCR.

“Since just about our entire team is intact from a year ago, we feel good about the coming year,” Harvick says.

The driver spent much of the preseason testing the “Car of Tomorrow,” the NASCAR prototype vehicle that debuts this spring at Bristol.

“Honestly we haven’t put a tremendous amount more effort into our speedway stuff,” Harvick says. “But we have put a lot of effort into the Car of Tomorrow stuff. We think we’ve got the Car of Tomorrow stuff down to suit us on the short tracks. And we feel like we’ve evolved on our downforce stuff.”

But as with others in his league, the quest to claim a Cup title remains his primary focus.

“This year we’ve had to develop a new engine, so that’s a huge question mark,” Harvick says. “But we’ve done what we had to do.”

Tweaking the Chase
Updated scoring system should increase margin of victory

NASCAR is finally starting to get it.
After years of working under a scoring system that made winning just a tad better than finishing second, the victor of a race will now receive 185 points, which is a five-point increase over years past. If the winner also shows the way at an event’s halfway point and leads the most laps, he could conceivably get 25 more points than the driver who finishes in the “place” position.

I’ve always believed there should be at least a 25-point difference between first and second in a race. Yes, 43 cars start a race, and, yes, a driver doesn’t have to win to have a good day.

Still, if they’re going to go to all the trouble of taking the race winner to victory lane, letting him shower in free champagne and forking over a nice chunk of change, shouldn’t it be reflected in the points?

“I might be mistaken, but I don’t think Tony (Stewart) won a race in the Chase last year,” Matt Kenseth said last season. “I think he won four or five races during the year, but in the Chase I don’t think he did; he just ran really good and was really consistent throughout the Chase.

“It should be about winning, but it should also be about consistency.”

Racing is much different than a stick-and-ball sport, as Kenseth pointed out. It’s not player vs. player or team vs. team, but several players and several teams sharing the same field.

“There’s only one guy who can win,” he said, but “there’s 43 people out there every Sunday, and running fourth is still better than running fifth.”

If I ran NASCAR – and Brian France has yet to ask me to take on that responsibility – I’d simplify the points system.

The winner of a race gets 500 points, and the second place finisher gets 450. Positions three through 10 would have a 15-point differential, meaning the driver who wound up 10th would get 340 points.

Finishing 11th is worth 320 points, and 20th place garners 210.

The driver who finishes 21st picks up 200 points, and 10-point increments are down the rest of the grid.

This rewards the victor substantially, while also rewarding drivers who consistently run in the top 20.

Fans seem to love the Chase, so it would’ve been easy for NASCAR to take the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to points distribution.

But a sport like stock car racing can reward victory without punishing consistency, and then by the end of a 36-event season everything will shake out like it should.

I hope NASCAR tweaks some more by 2008.