Long: Problems behind, Phoenix ahead leaves Kevin Harvick smiling

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FORT WORTH, Texas — After his gut-twisting, arm-wrestling race finally ended Sunday, Kevin Harvick could smile.

Two cut tires, a cantankerous transmission and a belligerent bungee cord couldn’t hold Harvick back at Texas Motor Speedway. The driver who once accused Jimmie Johnson (Sunday’s winner) of having a golden horseshoe, overcame his own ills to finish third in what has become an ulcer-inducing Chase for his team and fans that still could end with another title.

“We’ve just had to overcome things week after week after week,’’ Harvick said, not exaggerating. “I guess those are character-building moments as you go through those weekend, but we’ve managed to survive and advance, and that’s what we’ve got to do next week.”

The series heads next to Phoenix International Raceway – where Harvick has won the last four Sprint Cup races. His victory last November catapulted him to the championship round. This time, though, he enters Phoenix without needing a win to advance.

At least one competitor, though, doesn’t expect anything less than Harvick celebrating another victory there.

“We look at the points situation and guarantee Harvick winning that race,’’ Kyle Busch said of Phoenix. “Then you have to figure out who you’re racing after that to know what you have to do in order to point your way through.’’

It would seem that simple, but this Chase has not been that easy for arguably one of the sport’s top teams.

Already in this Chase, Harvick:

  • Finished 42nd in the opener at Chicagoland Speedway after contact with Johnson cut a tire and led to Harvick crashing.
  • Run out of fuel while leading with three laps to go at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and finished 21st.
  • Suffered a broken shifter handle and a pit road penalty, finishing 16th at Kansas.
  • Had engine problems at the end of the Talladega race and faced questions about his contact with Trevor Bayne that triggered a race-ending crash that allowed Harvick, who finished 15th, to advance to this round.

“It’s crazy that things have went the way they have for us,’’ crew chief Rodney Childers said.

Even Harvick’s win at Dover was not without issue. Some competitors questioned his postrace burnout, suggesting that his extreme celebration was done to destroy part of the car so NASCAR officials couldn’t fully examine it. NASCAR saw no problem.

Then came Sunday when Harvick’s race seemed in jeopardy after he suffered a flat left rear tire 36 laps into the 334-lap race. The culprit proved to be a piece of debris that cut the tire.

Harvick’s woes later returned. His shifter suddenly popped out of gear as the car ran down the frontstretch with about 85 laps left. A few laps later, Harvick reported another tire issue. This time a right rear was losing air after what appeared to be another cut.

The tire issues could be rectified. The transmission, though, was another issue. Harvick ran the rest of the race often with his right hand holding the gear shifter in place to ensure it wouldn’t slip out of gear and holding the steering wheel with his left hand. The team gave him a bungee cord during a late pit stop to tie it in place but Harvick couldn’t anchor it before the race resumed and drove one-handed.

When it was over, Childers was relieved but frustrated – particularly about the transmission issue.

“We’ve had way, way, way too many problems with them,’’ said Childers, who noted the transmissions were not done at Stewart-Haas Racing. “Something is going to have to change there. It’s never to late to change anything. We’re the only people in the entire garage that run that brand of transmission and I’m tired of dealing with them.’’

Again, it was something else overcome and Harvick remains in contention for the championship.

“We’ve had really good race cars, and that allows us to overcome things like today with two flat tires,’’ Harvick said. “Even with the shifter problem we were able to maintain what we had. But all in all, we just kept gouging away, and everything worked out in the end.”