Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Motor Mouth: Can lessons learned at Auto Club help Harvick win the championship?

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR
They say you need to lose a championship to win one; the same also applies to races.

When Kevin Harvick found himself against Jimmie Johnson for the win at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday, the Bakersfield, Calif., native was determined it wouldn’t end the same way it did a year ago at his home track - with Harvick hitting the wall and Johnson running off with the victory.

On the final lap, Harvick made his move: he got up on the bumper of the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet just enough to make Johnson loose and give him more speed than he wanted. It wasn’t a dirty move, it was gutsy – and Johnson admitted afterward that he would have done the same thing if in Harvick’s position.

And so Harvick claimed his first win at Auto Club Speedway. The implications are many. Harvick redeemed himself for last year’s loss and beat fellow California driver Johnson to do it. The win helped Harvick finally climb out of the points hole he's been in since the engine failure at Daytona, and he now sits 9th in the standings. Harvick also made the statement that his run for a title didn’t end last year – the Richard Childress Racing driver and his No. 29 team have their sights set on the championship again and are in it to win it.

Sunday’s Auto Club 400 also marked a personal milestone for Harvick: it was the first time he was up against Johnson for the win and came out on top. After the race, Harvick explained how he used lessons learned from last year’s race to defeat Johnson this year. I couldn’t help but think that if losing a race helped Harvick win one, perhaps the same lessons can be used to win a championship.

Here’s a look at what Harvick said and how they could apply to wrestling the title away from Johnson:

1.) Learn from your mistakes.
“Last year I made a mistake and gave the race away with two laps to go,” Harvick said. “I knew if I was going to hit the wall today, it wasn't going to be till turn four coming to the checkered. It was tight, but it was the right time to go.”

Harvick made his move and timed it right; if anyone’s car would get out of whack it was going to be Johnson’s this time around, not his.

The lesson is one that is vital to winning the championship as well. It’s hard to think of the mistakes Harvick made in the Chase last year because he really didn’t make that many – except for the speeding penalty he got at Homestead. Even though Harvick recovered to finish third, it deprived Harvick of the lead spot for the ensuing restart. With Johnson and Harvick running as close as they were that day, it was a devastating blow to the 29 team and you can’t help but wonder “what if?”

If Harvick learns from Homestead the way he did from Auto Club and can apply it throughout the season, expect to see him in the thick of the title battle again.

2.) Don't make mistakes.
“I was able to not make any mistakes. They didn't make any mistakes on the car all weekend long,” Harvick said. “Last year taught me a lot about what patience and the things I needed to do to beat a guy that doesn't make mistakes. In order to do that, you can't make mistakes yourself.”

When you’re running against Jimmie Johnson, whether in a race or for the championship, you need to be perfect to beat the man nicknamed “Superman.” That’s what Harvick was on Sunday when it counted most in those final laps. He said it best: he didn’t make any mistakes.

With the field as competitive as it is, any mistake can cost you, especially in the championship hunt. Fellow 2010 title contender Denny Hamlin may have been the prime example of this. In hindsight, the call to not come in for fuel earlier at the fall Phoenix race is where the No. 11 team lost the title. Things went downhill for the team at Homestead, where a poor qualifying effort put Hamlin in the back of the field. While charging to the front in the opening laps Hamlin spun out and never recovered.

To be the best you have to beat the best. And the only way to do that is by not making mistakes.

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images for NASCAR
3.) Patience.
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,” Harvick said.

A year ago, Harvick was eager to go for the win but made his move too early, with two laps to go. On a 2-mile superspeedway like Auto Club Speedway, a lot can happen in those two laps, as Harvick found out when he brushed the wall and took himself out of contention.

This year was different. Harvick’s not one to be satisfied with a good points day, so him accepting second was out of the question. But he is one to push the boundaries and go for the win; it was just a matter of pacing it and timing the move right.

Harvick’s come-from-behind moves aren’t that different from Johnson, who became a factor in the later part of Sunday’s race and often shows up when it matters most. Patience can win you races and doing it on a consistent basis can win you a championship.

4.) Chip away at it.
“Those guys are five-time champions, won a ton of races. 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,” Harvick said.

It all goes back to that in order to win a championship, you have to lose a championship. Learning from your mistakes, not making mistakes and having patience are all ways to chip away at bringing home the championship. After all, it worked out for Johnson: he had to lose at least two titles before winning his first in a historic streak.

Defeating Johnson for the first time since the two have gone head-to-head is a definite boost of confidence for Harvick and the No. 29 team and one more thing they have chipped away at. It also must make Harvick smile to know he bagged a win this season before the five-time champion did. Last year the No. 29 team showed incredible consistency, and apart from the engine failure this year, the team is still showing they have it as well as the ability to recover, which they did after on-track incidents at Phoenix and Bristol. Harvick has already said this year he feels his team has what it takes to win the title.

So besides the speeding penalty at Homestead and maintaining that consistency, the only other thing I think Harvick needs to work on is race wins, especially during the Chase. Harvick had three wins last year, but none of them came in the Chase, whereas Hamlin and Johnson had three wins between the two in the pivotal playoffs. Harvick came close at Talladega last year, coming in second in a photo finish to teammate Clint Bowyer. If Harvick can chip away at this, then the other contenders will need to watch out not just for Johnson, but for the man in the black No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet, who could be looking at his first championship.

Motor Mouth is a weekly column in which Skirts and Scuffs lead editor Rebecca Kivak spouts off about the latest NASCAR happenings. Continue the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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