- Associated Press - Friday, November 12, 2010

AVONDALE, ARIZ. (AP) - When Ron Hornaday was racing Mike Skinner for the 2007 Truck Series championship, Kevin Harvick vowed to do anything he could to help his driver win the title.

So the owner of Hornaday’s truck followed Skinner around Phoenix International Raceway, deliberately running behind him everywhere he went on the track. 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’s perfected during his NASCAR career. 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 ranked third in the standings 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 Mike Ford’s brashness following Hamlin’s victory at Texas last week.

“I think Mike should take his own advice to his driver and not insert your foot in your mouth,” Harvick said. “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. So you create a lot more work than what you see initially when you say those things.”

Hamlin’s win last week pushed him into the points lead ahead of four-time champion Johnson with two races remaining in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. 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’s got the better team.

The boasting was spurred by crew chief Chad Knaus’ midrace decision to bench his pit crew, a move that became permanent this week when Hendrick Motorsports said Jeff Gordon’s crew would pit Johnson the final two races.

The boasting, trading of barbs and the pit crew swap have taken the focus off of Harvick, who trails Hamlin by 59 points and is the forgotten man in the three-driver championship race.

And that’s exactly where Harvick wants to be.

“I am really excited just for the fact that this is the worst we could finish in the points, third. We have two great race tracks for us, and we have nothing to lose and everything to gain,” he said. “It’s really a no-pressure, no-lose situation for us and I like it. I like coming from behind. 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,” added Johnson.

It would be foolish to dismiss Harvick, a two-time winner at Phoenix who is also very strong at Homestead, site of next week’s season finale. And he’s absolutely loving that all the attention seems to be on Ford and Knaus.

Harvick’s nonchalant approach to the bickering crew chiefs was absolutely fitting because it gave him the opportunity to weigh in on the subject, thus keeping it at the front of the Phoenix story lines.

“I think when you’re trying to intimidate the guy who’s won four championships in a row, you might need to go rethink your strategy and just go worry about racing because it’s really not something that’s probably necessary,” Harvick said. “All the things that he said seemed to be a disruption to his team, and now Denny has to come in here and answer all those questions.”

Hamlin didn’t seem to mind, defending his crew chief and everything the usually mild-mannered Ford has said over the past week.

“He never says really much. He never really voices much opinion, I guess, to the public,” Hamlin said. “He’s the least-cocky guy I know. Anybody who’s been in this sport longer than last week will tell you that. I think he’s more boastful of his own team then he is skeptical of someone else’s.

“I think it kind of came off wrong. I don’t think the ‘he said, she said’ is totally irrelevant.”

Johnson wanted no part of the conversation. He admitted Ford’s comments were motivation this week at Hendrick Motorsports, but that he and his team do their best to not play mind games.

“We don’t intentionally do much of it, if any at all,” Johnson said. “I think we’ve been very fortunate in the past to have our performance on track speak for us. I’m not smart enough to play mind games. 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 it’s own.

“They are almost Jedi mind-tricking themselves.”

Not Harvick.

He’s focused on keeping the attention off of himself, making it easier to sneak up and steal the championship in next week’s finale.

“We’re in a great situation because the pressure on our team is very low,” he said. “We have those two guys going back and forth and we’re sitting back waiting to do what we want.”

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