By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Kevin Harvick took his first spin in his new Stewart-Haas Racing ride and immediately felt at ease.
It was three days after Harvick had wrapped up his stint with Richard Childress Racing and he was turning laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway with his new team in a rare December test. Any anxiety he had over leaving RCR after 13 years vanished.
"I told them on Lap 2 at Charlotte, 'Thank you guys very much. You have just confirmed every reason that I came here to drive this car,'" Harvick said.
Nearly 15 months after his surprising decision to leave Childress to drive for good friend Tony Stewart, Harvick will finally make his SHR debut this weekend at Daytona International Speedway. His first race will be Saturday night's exhibition Sprint Unlimited, the first of two Speedweeks races Harvick won a year ago in his so-called "lame duck" season.
He felt all season that nobody had high expectations for him back then and proved everyone wrong with four wins. Now, with the slate wiped clean, he has made clear what he's chasing at SHR.
"I expect to win and race for a championship," Harvick said. "That's why I came here."
Very few will make the mistake of overlooking Harvick this season, for two very different reasons.
He has established himself as one of the top closers in the business, and many of his wins have come from being in the right place to capitalize in the waning laps. That will come into play in this year's overhauled NASCAR scoring system, which will reward winning over consistency — all the way to the dramatic winner-take-all season finale.
NASCAR Chairman Brian France has revamped the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship into a 16-driver elimination system that will be whittled down to four eligible drivers racing for the title in the finale. The first one across the finish line takes the grand prize.
A driver can make the Chase by winning a race, and can advance in the Chase by winning during the elimination rounds.
It's a system that could — albeit temporarily — stall Jimmie Johnson's quest for a record-tying seventh Cup title.
It also may suit Harvick perfectly.
"He shows up for the big games," said Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at SHR. "He can rise up at the end of the race, he can rise up for the big races. I think that'll help drive our company, our group to a better product week in, week out."
And all eyes will be on SHR this year as the team, which struggled last year after expanding to three cars with the addition of Danica Patrick, swells to four full-time teams with four high-profile drivers.
Stewart, who missed the final 15 races of last season with a broken leg suffered in a sprint car crash, has been cleared to race again and will be back in his car Friday for the first time since the August accident. He will race in Saturday night's exhibition with many wondering if the three-time champion will return as the same fearless driver.
Stewart also has his third crew chief since he won the 2011 championship and an entirely different race organization than the one he had before his injury.
Gone from the roster is Ryan Newman, the driver Stewart personally lured to the team when he joined Gene Haas as co-owner in 2009. Newman is now driving for Childress and, while Stewart was recovering from his injuries, Haas added Kurt Busch to the roster in a new fourth car that Haas will pay for.
Yup, the driver Stewart once punched in the head on the opening day of Speedweeks is now his teammate and employee.