INDIANAPOLIS — Kevin Harvick took up golf a few months ago, and that might be bad news for his rivals in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Long known as one of NASCAR's more temperamental and tightly wound drivers, Harvick said he started playing golf because "I had to find something to get me away (from racing) for four or five hours a day. I've actually become addicted to it."
Perhaps not coincidentally, Harvick leads the championship point standings heading into Sunday's Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a race Harvick won in 2003.
Harvick said his calmer attitude, combined with a strong rebound in the quality of the No. 29 Chevrolets prepared by his Richard Childress Racing team this year, have helped lift him into the points lead.
Harvick has led the standings most of the season, thanks partly to wins at Talladega and at the summer race at Daytona early this month, and he has 13 top-10 finishes in 19 races.
Now, Harvick wants to be the driver that breaks Jimmie Johnson's string of four consecutive Cup titles by winning his first championship.
"I know we can run with them this year," Harvick, 34, said. "But those guys have been the guys for the last four years when it comes to crunch time. Until somebody goes out and beats them, they're still the team to beat."
Johnson, in turn, said he expects Harvick to be as strong as any contender when they reach NASCAR's Chase for the Cup, its title playoff over the season's final 10 races.
"Those guys have been very strong all year long and I'm not surprised," Johnson said of Harvick and his team. "Kevin's got plenty of talent."
Harvick starts ninth in the Brickyard 400, while Johnson starts second alongside Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the pole Saturday with a lap of 182.278 mph around the 2.5-mile speedway.
After growing up racing stock cars in the west, Harvick was thrust into the limelight in 2001 at age 25 when Childress tapped him to replace the legendary Dale Earnhardt after the seven-time champion was killed in the Daytona 500 that year.
Harvick has gone on to win 13 Cup races in his career, including the Daytona 500 in 2007. He also has had considerable success as a driver and owner in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide stock-car and Camping World truck series.
Along the way he developed a reputation for frequently being blunt, short-fused and sarcastic, and he often feuded with other drivers and the media.
Harvick still doesn't suffer fools and isn't afraid to speak his mind. At a media session in April, he scolded reporters for using anonymous sources in stories, saying that "if they're too chicken to give you their name, don't put their quote in the paper."
Harvick also still has his share of driver feuds, including a highly publicized tangle with Joey Logano at Pocono Raceway in June.
But Harvick said he has mellowed a bit and that it's helped him on the track and in running his race team, Kevin Harvick Inc.
"You just have to pick and choose your battles," he said. "I think a lot of that comes with just life in general. You have to find that even-keel temperament across the season.
"I finally realized that I'm pretty lucky to be doing what I'm doing."