Understanding how important last year's victory in the Brickyard 400 was to Kevin Harvick is easy.
"It's the biggest thing I've done in my career," said Harvick, the driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet owned by Richard Childress. "When you grow up and you want to do something, nine times out of 10 you don't get it to go that way. To actually get to do that at Indy was really cool for me."
When Harvick was a youngster growing up in California, he got an autographed photo from his racing hero, Rick Mears, that pictured Mears in Victory Lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "Good luck," Mears wrote on the picture. "I hope to see you here someday."
Someday became Aug. 3, 2003, when Harvick took a stock car instead of an Indy car under the checkered flag at America's most famous race course. He passed Jamie McMurray for the lead on a late restart and held on to get a victory that made childhood dreams come true.
"Fulfilling your dream is the neatest thing," Harvick said. "Being there in Victory Lane and getting to kiss the bricks and do all the things that go along with winning was really neat. It feels good to win anywhere, but it's a little more exciting there. It has a little more meaning than anywhere else."
Harvick hasn't been back to Victory Lane since that day, however, so he's looking at Sunday's Brickyard 400 to kickstart a season that he said has been tough to characterize. "It has been confusing," he said. "We've got a good race team, but we know that we've made a lot of mistakes. We've just got to quit doing that. Different things have been going wrong. It's not that we haven't put ourselves in position to win, we just haven't capitalized on a lot of situations."
It happened again last week, when Harvick had an engine problem and dropped out early in the Pennsylvania 500 - the first time in 59 races he posted a did-not-finish. Going into Pocono, Harvick had finished between 10th and 20th in seven straight races. He finished third at Darlington and at Talladega in the season's first half, but has led just 68 laps all season. However, he has been no lower than 12th in the standings all year, and has been in the top 10 since the third-place finish at Bristol 15 races ago. He's 10th after his 32nd-place finish at Pocono.
"We have been working hard to get ourselves where we need to be," he said. "There has been pressure on us since Day 1 to go out and try to be in the top 10 and win races and win a championship." That's true. Harvick stepped into his ride at Rockingham one week after seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. In just his third career start, Harvick scored an emotional victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He won the first two Nextel Cup races at Chicagoland Speedway in 2001 and 2002, then added the Brickyard 400 trophy to his collection last season.
Harvick finished a career-best fifth in the Cup standings last season. If he's going to improve on that this year, he'll have to hold on to one of the 10 spots available in the Chase for the Nextel Cup format after the 26th race at Richmond. His plan for staying in the top 10 and making noise in the 10-race "playoff" that will begin at New Hampshire on Sept. 19 is the same. Attack. "If you go conservative, the guys behind you are going to be wide open," he said. "I don't think you can do that. Usually you get yourself into more trouble when you go on the defense instead of offense. You just have to go about your business and do what you have to do to win the race. "For the last 10 races, we would definitely be on the offensive. That fits right into our style. We've just got to make sure we get to that point."