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Ingram: Harvick Set To Knock Johnson Off Throne?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 28 2011

Kevin Harvick enjoys life in Victory Lane at Auto Club. The Richard Childress Racing driver could be enjoying life a lot in 2011. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief™:

So is this the year that Jimmie Johnson relinquishes the Sprint Cup?

It’s early days yet. But if the results from the Auto Club Speedway are any indication – or the finish in the first five races of the season, there are more than a few contenders lining up to take a crack at knocking Johnson off the throne.

By coming from behind to beat Johnson on the last lap at the California track, Kevin Harvick has nominated himself as the leading contender. Toyota driver Kyle Busch, who seems to win everything but the Sprint Cup, continued his momentum despite getting beat on Sunday due to a Joe Gibbs Racing entry missing an adjustment or two.

New points leader Carl Edwards is off to the best start of his career in the revived Fords of Roush Fenway Racing. Kurt Busch has led the points while knocking on the door to victory lane in the Dodge of Penske Racing, a team that has won championships in Indy cars, sports cars and the Nationwide Series – just about everything except the Sprint Cup.

Two-time champion Tony Stewart, despite looking like a backwards express at the finish on Sunday, has finally found a way to jump-start himself sometime before summer. He’s become a team owner

Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick all contended for the victory on Sunday. They could be contending all season long. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

and is responsible for motivating an entire organization, making his own best effort job one. Like Edwards, “Smoke” has been, well, smokin’.

And Johnson? For the first time in recent memory, he’s trailing a Hendrick Motorsports Chevy teammate, Jeff Gordon, in the win column. At his home track on Sunday, Johnson had Harvick pushing him around on the last lap, forcing him into an unfavorable line in the final turns and a runner-up finish. Without any final slide job comeback from Jimmie.

Johnson’s toast, right?

You could have made the same assessment about his chances of winning in California midway in the race. But there was the Lowe’s Chevy at the finish, ready to take advantage of a couple of late cautions and Busch’s fading Toyota. Only Harvick, who led but one lap in the Richard Childress Racing Chevy, was a match for Johnson’s ability to be competitive at the finish. Harvick said it was a little like taking lessons from the master after hitting the wall last year at ACS in hot pursuit during the closing laps.

“Last year taught me a lot about patience and the things I needed to do to beat a guy that doesn’t make mistakes,” said Harvick. “In order to do that, you can’t make mistakes yourself. This race one year ago is what helped us win today, by being patient, not taking yourself out of the race, having something there at the end until it was time to go.”

But does this mean he’ll blow by Johnson for the title?

“Those guys are five time champions, won a ton of races,” said Harvick, who has hauled himself up to ninth in the points after one DNF. “We feel as a team we can race right with ’em, but so does everybody else. There’s a lot of other guys that think the same thing, but nobody’s beat them in five years. We’ve just got to keep chipping away at it.”

Better than any other team in the Sprint Cup, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have been more

Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart both looked capable of winning on Sunday. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

consistent about finding a way to improve their Chevy entries over the course of a race in order to stay in the hunt. Given a 36-race schedule, none of their contenders are taking anything for granted when it comes to finding a way to beat Johnson to the title.

One of those who missed the action at the front of the field was Kurt Busch. The former points leader’s race in Fontana was a telltale about the difficulty of getting near the front every week. He finished 17th after struggling to get the Double Deuce over the bumps on the worn surface at ACS. “It’s a long season, a marathon, not a sprint,” said Busch the elder.

For the last five years, Johnson has been the marathon man. If racing is about a driver’s ability to maintain equilibrium at 200 mph in the face of competition, Johnson is the standard for being unflappable over the long haul. In victory or defeat.

“When Kevin was alongside of me off of (Turn 4), I could have maybe tried to squeeze the door, do something a little stupid there,” said Johnson while commenting on Harvick’s push just before the duo entered Turn 3. “I’m like, ‘If I spin out here and finish 15th because I’m down on the grass, can’t get the car fired up, it would just be stupid.’

“That’s what happens at (age) 35 and 10 years in the sport,” continued Johnson. “You weigh those things out. Within reason today it was all about running the race, especially when we got to the front. We ran around in 10th to 15th for most of the day. Then got in the top five, stabilized, had a stop or two to make our car better. From there had a chance to race for the win.”

Earlier in the week, Johnson spent some time at Sony’s studios to work as an actor – playing himself – in an episode of “Breaking In!” Johnson was evidently bored stiff and had to find a way to keep himself motivated. So he swapped stories and jokes with the crew in between take after take on the

Jimmie Johnson gives tour of his hauler to actors Fred Savage and Christian Slater. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)

set, and more than likely got a few acting tips. By the end of the day, he was actually acting fairly well – according to his PR rep, not known for a sweet disposition or throwing out false compliments to keep her driver’s ego inflated.

Similarly, Johnson made the most of his day on Sunday at ACS, figuring a way to get better and better as the miles unfolded along with Knaus. Then along came Harvick, who has figured out how to maintain his composure and patience as well. There was no hitting the wall while in hot pursuit as last year at ACS. He made it to Johnson’s bumper on the last trip down the backstraight and that was enough to set up his only lap in the lead.

“I knew if I was going to hit the wall today, it wasn’t going to be till turn four coming to the checkered,” said Harvick.

It would be a stretch to imagine Johnson and Harvick as the Petty and Pearson of the current era, if only because there are too many front runners on strong teams for the sport to be dominated by the story line of just two drivers. Yet, it could well be an interesting season if these two continue to find themselves battling on the last lap just like Petty and Pearson in the days of yore, when those two finished one-two 63 times.

As the campaign unfolds, if it’s Harvick versus Johnson regularly I imagine that we’d eventually see more slide jobs and disagreements in place of the nice early season manners on display Sunday. We’d be likely to see more great racing, too.

Quote of the Week: “I wish we could go out there and wear them out one day and not have to worry about waiting ’til the last lap. Does seem we kind of wait ’til the end to really get going. I always was taught to race, just go fast enough to put yourself in position to be around at the end and make sure your car still has all the fenders and tires and everything still underneath it. When it’s time to go, you have a little something left, your car is hopefully fresher than the guys around you.”

– Kevin Harvick, talking about what he descibes as a “bad habit” of waiting until the end of races to move to the front

Note: In last week’s MMCC, Comcast was identified as a Internet Service Provider that does not provide access to ESPN3.com for its customers. That is incorrect. Thanks to ESPN’s Andy Hall and reader Paul Crumlish for the update. There are ISP’s who do not provide access to ESPN3.com, but according to the American Le Mans Series, 90 percent of the broadband universe does have access to it, including college campuses and military bases.

The key viewpoint from here in this part of the discussion on the streaming of online video: it will eventually cost consumers more dollars to gain access to video on the net, the beginning of the end of net neutrality.

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 28 2011
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