DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) - Kevin Harvick knew his first-year Stewart-Haas Racing team was better than it had shown the past few weeks. After taking the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Saturday night, Harvick is convinced the group has exactly what it takes to win a Sprint Cup championship.
''I'm excited about it and I think that's why everybody on this team came here,'' Harvick said. ''We came here to race for wins, to be in a position to contend for a championship. I really feel like everybody on this team feels like we bettered ourselves by coming together.''
They took a major step to proving that with Harvick's first victory in 18 races at the track ''Too Tough To Tame.'' It made Harvick the first this season with two victories - and a lock for the season-ending, 16-team Chase for a Sprint Cup championship.
The victory also ended a maddening slump where Harvick had finishes of 41st, 39th, 36th, seventh and 42nd in the races since the team's breakthrough win at Phoenix last month.
Harvick said such a stretch might've devastated a lesser team - he pointed to the chaos that's been the NBA's Indiana Pacers in recent weeks - but thought his crew kept each other's spirits up through the down times. The team had a near flawless performance at Darlington, capturing Harvick's first-ever pole here before his dominating performance (he led 238 of 374 laps) that was capped when he passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the second green-white-checkered finish.
''Sometimes it just doesn't go your way and you have to be able to put that behind you whether you win or lose,'' he explained. ''Come Monday morning, we have to put this behind us and say, `What do we need to do to get better?'''
The team will have a bit more time for those decisions since the circuit takes its traditional Easter weekend off before resuming at Richmond International Raceway on April 26.
Harvick's crew chief Rodney Childers blamed the failings on mistakes he will ensure get corrected. ''Without mechanical issues, we could've won three races, four races, maybe five races,'' Childers said.
Here are five other things to take away from the Southern 500:
FRESH TIRES ARE THE BEST TIRES: Nothing beats fresh rubber, especially at Darlington. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson each chose to take just two tires on a pit stop after a caution 10 laps from the end. Harvick and Childers decided on a full set and that was the difference as the No. 4 Chevrolet moved past Earnhardt on the next to last lap for the victory.
''The `4' just had new tires,'' Earnhardt said. ''We had 30-something laps on our lefts and that just wasn't going to get the job done with him right behind us.''
YOUNG GUNS ON THE RISE: The weekend also featured a couple of young racers who look as if they'll make a mark on this sport. 18-year-old high-schooler Chase Elliott was the talk of the track after his dash to the top on Friday for his second straight victory in the Nationwide Series.
On the Sprint Cup side, 21-year-old Kyle Larson made it through a harrowing weekend where he struck the wall in practice - twice - and had to use a backup car. Still, he wound up eighth, an impressive run at a track that typically chews up and spits out untested drivers.
GOOD ON YA, GORDON: Jeff Gordon still doesn't have a victory this season but again showed why the four-time series champion is on a major roll. His No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports car had another top 10 (he was seventh), his sixth in eight races this year. Keep this up and Gordon may not need a win to get him into the chase, assuming there are 15 or fewer winners this season.
''Good to be leading the points (but) I feel like a missed opportunity,'' Gordon said.
HENDRICK STRONG: Three of the four Hendrick Motorsports entries finished in the top seven with Dale Earnhardt Jr. second, Jimmie Johnson third and Gordon seventh. The one Hendrick driver not up in the top 10 was Kasey Kahne back in 37th.
WATCH YOUR BACK, CLINT: Clint Bowyer might want to be extra careful around Richmond in two weeks after he got up behind Kurt Busch and spun out the Stewart-Haas Racing driver on the first of two green-white-checkered finishes.
Busch rammed hard into the interior wall,, but got out of the car fine - and vengeful. He purposely walked up the track as the line of cars moved past, making sure to stare down Bowyer's No. 15 machine as he drove past.