LOUDON, N.H. (AP) _ Kevin Harvick turned New Hampshire International Speedway into his personal playground, dominating Sunday's race to take the early lead in NASCAR's Chase for the championship.
Harvick, who started from the pole and paced almost every practice session, led 196 of the 300 laps to run away with the first round of the 10-race Chase. He moved to the top of the points standings for the first time in his career, and holds a 35-point lead over rookie Denny Hamlin, who finished fourth.
``We just have to keep doing what we're doing,'' said Harvick, who won for the second straight week and fourth time this season. ``If we keep winning races, we're not going to get outscored in points.''
Defending series champion Tony Stewart, who did not make the Chase this season and isn't eligible for the championship, finished second.
Jeff Gordon was third to jump to fourth in the standings, the lone bright spot in an otherwise dismal day for Hendrick Motorsports. Chase drivers Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson both wrecked early, finished 38th and 39th, and dropped to the back of the 10-driver championship field.
It was yet another heartbreaking blow for Johnson, who led the standings for 22 weeks this year only to see his season fall apart with the Nextel Cup on the line. Although he has nine weeks to try to race back into contention, he knows how difficult it will be.
``Right now it looks like things are out of our control to get back in this thing right now,'' said Johnson, 139 points out of the lead. ``I can only judge on how guys are running today, and all the Chase guys are running up front.
``I hope I eat the words I said early on when I said, `You can't win the championship here in New Hampshire, but you can lose it today.'''
Indeed, the championship can be lost in the first round of the Chase, and it happened in each of the first two seasons of NASCAR's new title-deciding format.
Stewart, Ryan Newman and Jeremy Mayfield all were taken out of contention in 2004 following an early accident at this 1.058-mile oval. Then defending series champion Kurt Busch suffered the same fate last season when he was wrecked moments into the race.
So the tone was set Sunday, with Harvick establishing early that he's the driver to beat. The other Chase contenders held their own, with everyone but Johnson and Busch finishing in the top 16.
Busch's day went bad on the very first lap, when he cut off Jeff Green and the contact caused enough damage to his Chevrolet that he had to pit several times and dropped a lap down. A second accident 100 miles from the finish dropped him to a 38th-place finish.
Johnson, winner of the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard, had hoped to celebrate his 31st birthday with a strong run. Instead, he lost a cylinder early in the race to put his team on edge and afraid of a total engine failure. But they didn't have to worry very long: Johnson was run into the wall shortly after when Sterling Marlin swerved to avoid hitting other cars.
The hard hit destroyed the No. 48 Chevrolet and demoralized a team that had hoped this was finally its year to win that elusive title. As crew chief Chad Knaus slumped in his seat on top of the pit box, Johnson was coming to terms with how difficult it will be to rebound.
But Gordon thinks its too early to count out his protege.
``Sometimes I think they do better when they are angry and get behind,'' Gordon said.
Even if he does rebound, it will be hard for anyone to catch Harvick, who won for the third time in the past six races and second in a row.
And he proved early he's going to run hard for this title, using a risky three-wide pass of teammate Jeff Burton and Hamlin just 37 laps into the race. Hamlin was leading, Burton was second and Harvick thought he was better than both of them.
But instead of waiting for an open opportunity to get to the front, he shoved his Chevrolet in the middle of both cars to force his way to the front. The move caused Hamlin to wiggle to the outside, and could have been disastrous for all three Chase drivers.
Harvick didn't care.
`At this point, it's all about the championship and going for it and throwing caution to the wind,'' Harvick said. ``If you look back on it, I probably wouldn't do that again.''