LOUDON, N.H. (AP) – Kevin Harvick saw the hole in front of him, a small patch of open track between two other cars.

Driving through it would be risky, but Harvick’s never shied away from taking chances. So he shoved his Chevrolet in between Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton, forcing his way to the front and running away with the win Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway.

This is how Harvick plans to run for his first Nextel Cup title: Unafraid, unapologetic and with everything he’s got.

“At this point, it’s all about the championship and going for it and throwing caution to the wind,” Harvick said of his three-wide pass just 37 laps into the race. “If you look back on it, I probably wouldn’t do that again.”

Harvick turned New Hampshire International Speedway into his personal playground, dominating the entire weekend 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 sure have the momentum right now,” said Harvick, who won for the second straight week and fourth time this season. “We just have to keep doing what we’re doing. 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 in one of the more nerve-racking races of his career. Although he wants to run hard these final 10 races, he’s struggling to find the balance between doing so and being respectful of the 10 drivers battling to take his title.

“I don’t feel like we have to prove anything. I think 26 (career) wins and two championships is proof enough – we just had a bad year this year,” he said. “It’s just a matter of will at this point. We want to go out and win races for ourselves.

“But it is a frustrating day when you are racing those guys that are in the top 10 in points. You are just so cautious around them and it is hard to race real hard and be around those guys, worrying about getting into them.”

Jeff Gordon was third and jumped all the way up 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 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 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, storming between teammate Burton and Hamlin, who wiggled to the outside in the wake of the pass.

Hamlin thought it was too early to race that hard.

“It was real risky at the time,” he said. “I was very surprised that he did that. I didn’t think he needed to do that to show how strong he was. I think he could have passed me and (Burton) in five laps fairly easy.

“But that’s the way he wanted to get to the front in a hurry.”

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