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Harvick gets first win of year


-- Kevin Harvick wants to send a reminder to the Winston Cup.

''I think there's a lot of people that thought they had us beat down and kicked up and buried in our grave,'' he said.

Harvick won the Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday for the second straight year in a race marking the halfway point of the season. This was his first win since taking the checkered flag in this race last July.

He displayed the kind of driving that has earned Harvick a following among fans and criticism from drivers. He got a big assist from crew chief Gil Martin, whose late-race gamble on gas paid off.

Martin told his driver to remain on the track while most of the other leaders pitted. Harvick listened, and barely made it.

He had to walk to victory lane after running out of gas as he began to do celebratory, tire-smoking doughnuts.

The critical moment came on the 197th of 267 laps when Harvick went on the attack, diving to the bottom of the slightly banked track to pass Kurt Busch.

Harvick lost control and skidded through the paved apron below the white line in the first turn. On some tracks, that is considered out of bounds. Not at Chicagoland.

Harvick was able to regain control and pit after several drivers, including Jimmy Spencer, spun or crashed.

That allowed Harvick to make what turned out to be his final pit stop, and Martin made sure the 22-gallon tank was full with 68 laps left.

Harvick, in a slump most of this season, has been criticized for rough driving since he took over his ride at Richard Childress Racing after Dale Earnhardt was killed in February 2001. He has spent time on probation this year and was banned for one Winston Cup race after hitting Coy Gibbs in a truck race.

His pass attempt on Busch drew more flak. Jeff Gordon, who stayed on the track during the last round of stops and finished second, called Harvick's move onto the apron ''stupid.''

Spencer said Harvick ''caused an accident and we got in it and it took us out. It was uncalled for.

''He still drives like an idiot, but what are you going to do?''

When told of Gordon's remark, Harvick said, ''Jeff Gordon got second. Maybe if he had been a little braver he might have won. He thinks it's a stupid move. I think it was cool.''

Team owner Richard Childress backed his driver.

''I think race drivers today, to win, have to be bold,'' Childress said. ''I have seen Jeff Gordon make some of those same moves and win races.''

The dramatic finish was set up on lap 240. Pole-winner Ryan Newman, who was leading the race, nearly crashed as his right front tire went flat. Jerry Nadeau lost control and crashed behind Newman.

The seventh caution allowed the leaders to pit, but Harvick and Gordon -- who had been running ninth and 10th -- stayed out.

Gordon, the four-time and defending series champion, couldn't get past the new leader on the restart on lap 248, and Harvick's Chevrolet pulled ahead.

''The biggest worry I had was on the restart,'' Harvick said. ''Jeff Gordon is great on restarts. When he didn't get me there, I thought we could win it.''

Harvick won by 0.812 seconds, finishing about eight car lengths ahead on the 1 1/2-mile oval. It was only his second top-10 finish of the season.

Tony Stewart, who appeared to have the fastest car on the track through most of the last half of the race, wound up third after taking gas only on his last pit stop.

''I had the best car out there, but we had a fuel problem,'' Stewart said.

Jimmie Johnson, who started 37th in the 43-car field, finished fourth, just ahead of fellow rookie Newman and Busch, who qualified second but had to start from the rear of the field after blowing an engine in practice Saturday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. led a race-high 73 laps but lost his final lead to Newman on lap 202 and wound up 10th after taking on four new tires on his last stop.

Sterling Marlin, who entered the race with a 77-point lead over Mark Martin, stopped with the front of his car over the white line at the front of his pit stall when he came in under caution on lap 140. That's an automatic one-lap penalty.

He wound up 16th, the first car a lap down, while Martin was ninth, cutting the lead to 49 points. Johnson trails by 89, Gordon by 95 and Stewart by 157. The Associated Press