NASCAR & Auto Racing

Kevin Harvick picks up first career victory at Las Vegas

Kevin Harvick celebrates in Victory Lane after winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race Sunday, March 8, 2015, in Las Vegas.
Kevin Harvick celebrates in Victory Lane after winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race Sunday, March 8, 2015, in Las Vegas. AP

In the final three races of the 2014 Sprint Cup Series season, Kevin Harvick won twice, finished second once and captured his first series championship.

Following his dominating victory in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he’s now finished second, second and first to start the 2015 season.

Clearly, there ain’t no stopping him now.

Jeff Gordon was the last driver in the Cup series who finished first or second in six consecutive races.

That was in 1996.

“Any time you say ‘Jeff Gordon’ in a streak, obviously things are going OK,” said Harvick, who earned his 29th career win and first at Las Vegas.

The win all but ensures Harvick the opportunity to defend his championship in this season’s 10-race Chase.

The performance and commitment necessary to be one of the sport’s consistent challengers for race wins and championships is difficult to sustain, which is why so few racing teams maintain it.

That makes the accomplishments of Harvick and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team – which was put together in the offseason between the 2013 and 2014 seasons – all the more impressive.

“When they do win and make it look easy, you kind of scratch your head, ‘Well, how can they do that?’ But that takes tremendous amounts of preparation,” said team co-owner Gene Haas.

“It takes training, it takes picking the right crew people, it takes so many little things to make it look that easy, but that’s what they do.”

Just as important is the team’s unwillingness to rest on the success of last season.

“I have been absolutely terrified that we would never sit up here again,” Harvick said while taking part in the winner’s post-race news conference. “I think that’s the motivation – just making sure that you don’t let everybody down.

“You have to figure out ways to motivate yourself and motivate our team, and for us, it’s just trying to be the best you can in every practice and be the best that you can in qualifying.”

Harvick was not the best leading into Sunday’s race. He struggled in practice on Friday and qualified 18th – not terrible, but his team certainly didn’t show the dominating speed which defined it during its championship run last season.

“Friday, you would have thought that the end of the world had come because you looked at everybody on the team and it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we qualified 18th,’” he said.

“I just went back to my motorhome and laughed and realized that we were really disappointed about qualifying 18th and knew that these guys were going to go home and concentrate on what they needed to do.”

They did just that.

Harvick showed considerable gains in Saturday’s practices and wasted little time working his way to the front of the field in Sunday’s race.

He took the lead for the first time on Lap 91 and then led 142 of the remaining 177 laps.

Harvick’s biggest hurdle to victory came following his final green-flag pit stop when his car developed a bad loose condition that made him wonder if he had a loose wheel or tire going down.

By then it was too late to change the result, so crew chief Rodney Childers encouraged Harvick to soldier on, and he ended up easily holding off Martin Truex Jr. to pick up the win.

“We could get 10 races from now and start struggling with different things,” said Childers, “but the good thing we’ve got going is everybody is working together really well.

“There’s never any doubt when we go to the race track whether we’ve got a good car or not or whether we have a good engine or not or whether Kevin is going to do his part.

“It’s 100 percent every time we come.”

Not bad odds if you can get them, especially in Las Vegas.

Utter: (704) 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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