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CUP: Huge Challenge For Harvick

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Kevin Harvick doesn’t have an impossible task, just an exceptionally daunting one.

Harvick, who led the points at the end of NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, heads into Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway ranked third in points, 59 behind leader Denny Hamlin and 26 back of second-place Jimmie Johnson.

For Harvick to win the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship pretty much will require two things to happen: He’ll have to finish the season with two very strong races and hope Hamlin and Johnson both stumble in at least one of the final two events.

It can happen.

And it has happened.

In 1992, Alan Kulwicki was third in points heading into Phoenix, 15 points behind Davey Allison and 85 back of Bill Elliott.

Allison won the Phoenix race, while Kulwicki was fourth and Elliott 31st, so when the teams left the Valley of the Sun, Allison led the points by 30 over Kulwicki and 40 up on Elliott.

At the season finale in Atlanta — a race notable also for being Richard Petty’s last Sprint Cup start and Jeff Gordon’s first — Allison crashed early and wound up 27th, while Elliott and Kulwicki finished 1-2. But because Kulwicki led one more lap than Elliott, he picked up five bonus points for leading the most laps and that proved to be the difference in the championship, one of the greatest three-way fights in NASCAR history.

As unlikely as the circumstances were leading up to Kulwicki’s victory, Harvick needs the same kind of things to fall his way if he’s to take the title this year. As noted, not impossible, but certainly improbable.

Nevertheless, Harvick will be racing on one of his very favorite tracks this weekend, the tricky one-mile PIR oval. Harvick, a native of Bakersfield, Calif., had plenty of experience racing at PIR in the early days of his career and has a total of seven victories in NASCAR’s top three divisions here: Four in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, one in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and two in the Cup Series.

That said, his Cup record here has not been stellar of late. His finishing average over the last seven Phoenix races has been 15.57, which won’t get it done at a track where Johnson’s average finish is 4.93 and Hamlin’s is 11.60.

This weekend, Harvick will bring the same Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Impala that he drove to a third-place finish at Martinsville Speedway recently, a race that Hamlin won and Johnson finished fifth in.

“When you look back at Martinsville, we (Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick) spent half the race racing each other,” said Harvick. “I don’t think top-10s are going to cut it. I think it’s going to come down to putting yourself in victory lane and capitalize on the most bonus points in the next two weeks.”

Harvick said the PIR track presents challenges to the teams.

“At Phoenix, you've just got to get your car turning really well and obviously the asphalt is worn out so the tires fall off a lot and you have to find that compromise between a fast car and a car that lasts long enough to maintain that speed as you go through the run,” he said. “So the day race is a little bit different than the night race just because you've got a little bit more track temp and it seems like the cars fall off a little bit more than they do at the first race. So, it's a tough place to find that balance between the whole run.”

Regardless of what happens in the next two weeks, though, it’s been a great season for Harvick.

“This is what you want,” Harvick said. “You want to have a chance for a championship. You want to be in contention and whether we win or lose, this is what we set out at the beginning of the year to do. And I think it's important to work as hard as you can and I think everybody alongside of me is working as hard as they can and we're going to do everything we can to try to win. Whether it's good enough? I don't know. But this is fun. This really is fun. It's not like running bad. It's fun because you're running good and you have a chance and that's really all you can ask for is to have a chance.”

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.