CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ Kevin Harvick is so hot right now that the competition clearly is concerned _ so much so that Harvick believes a rival intentionally spread false allegations of cheating to rattle his team.
After Harvick's win last week in New Hampshire, a Speed TV report claimed that Harvick and teammate Jeff Burton were manipulating their wheels to gain a performance advantage. NASCAR and Richard Childress Racing strongly denied the accusation, but Speed TV stands by its report.
With no one sure what to believe _ and the report has led many teams to believe Harvick indeed is cheating _ the driver is pretty confident he knows what's going on.
``I absolutely think it was a plant from another team,'' Harvick told MRN Radio. ``NASCAR didn't say anything, so it's pretty obvious to me where it came from. It's an attempt to try and distract us from what we're doing, but they're going to have to do a lot better than that.''
Ahh, the games they play in NASCAR, where the competition is tighter than ever and everyone is wondering just what it is that Harvick and his RCR team have zeroed in on.
With two consecutive wins, and three in the last six races, the No. 29 team is clearly on fire. Sunday's win in New Hampshire moved Harvick to the top of the points standings for the first time in his career, and put car owner Richard Childress out front for the first time since March 1999.
Now they are the team to beat in the Chase for the championship, which heads into Round 2 this weekend in Dover, Del.
That's left several rival teams unsettled, particularly after the Speed TV report claimed that NASCAR's post-race inspectors discovered the Childress teams were operating in a gray area of the rule book. NASCAR dismissed the report as ``sheer fantasy'' and criticized anyone who bought into the allegations.
``Any team who believes or says that those two teams did anything wrong is giving an excuse for losing,'' spokesman Jim Hunter sneered. ``It's sour grapes, that's all. Nobody gets beat anymore, it seems. They all lost because somebody else cheated.''
So, fairly or not, Harvick heads to Dover in the center of a firestorm. All eyes will be on him, his team and crew chief Todd Berrier, who isn't exactly immune to the NASCAR inspectors and was suspended twice last season for bending the rules.
If anyone can handle it, though, it's Harvick.
This is the guy who was introduced to Cup racing under the most trying of circumstances, forced to replace Dale Earnhardt just days after he was killed in a 2001 accident. He couldn't escape the attention then, and admittedly didn't always handle it well.
That's clearly changed now, with Harvick rather aware of the proper way to handle the ups and downs in his career.
``I think it is a Catch-22 _ you want to temper yourself to the point to where you are excited, but not overly excited,'' he said. ``We are excited that we have turned our organization around, and we feel like we can race for the championship, but I have also been on the arrogant and cocky side of it in years past.
``You don't want to stick your foot in your mouth. Maybe at the end of the year, you can become a little bit proud of what you have done, but right now we just want to keep doing what we are doing. We don't want to fall on our face.''
Because, if they do, nine other drivers are right behind them ready to pounce.
From Matt Kenseth, who won at Dover in July and sits third in the points standings, to Mark Martin, a four-time Monster Mile winner in sixth, to Jimmie Johnson, who swept Dover in 2002 and is mired in ninth place, all of them will be watching and waiting to see how Harvick handles the pressure.
Harvick isn't concerned.
``I feel like I am in a better frame of mind, and I feel like we have got experience, too,'' he said. ``Every year, you gain a little more experience, and you feel like you know how to handle situations better.''