Times wiresAVONDALE, Ariz.
When Ron Hornaday was racing Mike Skinner for the 2007 NASCAR truck series championship, Kevin Harvick vowed to do anything he could to help his driver win. So Harvick, the owner of Hornaday's truck, followed Skinner around Phoenix International Raceway, deliberately running behind him everywhere he raced. The intent was to annoy Skinner and his team to the point that they paid more attention to Harvick being a nuisance than they did on running a flawless race.
It was yet another attempt by Harvick to mentally defeat the competition — an art he has perfected. No active driver is as good as Harvick at playing the puppeteer, a strategy of manipulation and mind games designed to rattle his competitors.
So Harvick found himself in the catbird seat Friday at Phoenix, where he went into the weekend third in Sprint Cup points and enjoying his view of the ongoing trash talk between the crew chiefs for leaders Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson.
"It's a crew chief, for God's sake," Harvick smirked about the lingering bemusement over crew chief Mike Ford's brashness after the victory by his driver, Hamlin, at Texas last week.
"I think Mike should take his own advice to his driver and not insert your foot in your mouth. The only good thing that comes from being cocky like that is you better win. Because if you don't, you're going to have to answer a lot of questions about your comments."
Hamlin's win last week pushed him into the points lead, ahead of four-time defending champion Johnson with two races left. Ford said after the win that his Joe Gibbs Racing team isn't afraid to go bumper-to-bumper with the champions, and he firmly believes he has the better team.
The boasting was spurred by the midrace decision by Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, to bench his pit crew.
All that talk took the focus off Harvick, who trails Hamlin by 59 points. And Harvick is fine with that.
"I am really excited … that this is the worst we could finish in the points, third," he said. "We have two great racetracks for us, and we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It's really a no-pressure, no-lose situation, and I like it. … I like when people write us off."
But while the outside focus may be on only Hamlin and Johnson, the drivers are very aware of Harvick.
"I've never, not one time, thought that this was a two-horse race," Hamlin said.
"I can't pick a favorite," Johnson said.
Johnson wanted no part of the crew chief talk. He said Ford's comments were motivation this week at Hendrick Motorsports, but that he and his team do their best not to play mind games.
"I'm not smart enough to play mind games," Johnson said. "I just get in the car, do my thing and I go. The fact that people think so much about what we're trying to do ends up being a mind game in its own.
"They are almost Jedi mind-tricking themselves."