LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) – Kevin Harvick started the season looking for a brief escape from the uncertainty surrounding his career.

He found it in the Busch Series, where for 10-odd hours a week he could climb into a car and forget about all the questions and comments about his status as NASCAR’s top free agent.

All he wanted was a moment of peace.

What he got was the best year of his career.

Harvick embarrassed the competition en route to his second Busch title, wrapping it up with a month to go in the season and finishing with an 824-point cushion over runner-up Carl Edwards. He won nine races – just missing Sam Ard’s longtime record of 10 victories in a season – and finished in the top 10 in all but three of 35 events.

Not too shabby for a guy who only wanted a break.

“When you are in the Busch car, it’s a good getaway when you don’t know what your future is going to hold,” Harvick said before picking up $2,850,864 – the second biggest payout in series history – at Friday night’s Busch banquet.

“As I started looking at it, I said, ‘That would be a great hideaway.’ A way to get away from the media and the questions that were going on. That was one of the biggest reasons – I could take up a lot of my time and get my mind off of all that.”

Did he ever.

Harvick put together a brilliant, comeback season, one that ultimately turned the one-time Bad Boy into a bona fide NASCAR star.

He won 14 races in the Nextel Cup and Busch Series and another three as a car owner. He finally qualified for the Chase for the championship and briefly flirted with his first Cup title before fading to a career-best fourth-place finish in the standings.

And he chose loyalty over the monster paycheck, re-signing with Richard Childress in a move that helped the longtime car owner return his organization to an elite level.

Harvick also grew up quite a bit.

A combative driver who bickered with his rivals, teammates, NASCAR officials and anyone else who got in his way, Harvick used 2006 to calm down just a bit. He learned to pick his battles and how to speak his mind and not get called before series officials.

The result was fewer headline-grabbing incidents that distracted Harvick and his team.

Harvick’s wife, DeLana, credits his maturity to the lessons he has learned through owning Kevin Harvick Inc. Having to deal with all the different NASCAR layers from the perspective of a car owner taught Harvick how to behave.

“I think that’s really fostered better relationships with Richard, with NASCAR … he just doesn’t see it from one perspective and I think he truly understands what it’s going to take to be to be successful,” DeLana said.

“But he’s still going to have bad days. He’s a human being and he’s going to make some bonehead mistakes and probably say things in the media he shouldn’t. But what’s so endearing about Kevin is that he’s not afraid to do things or say things.”

Case in point: On the eve of the Nextel Cup finale, when Jimmie Johnson needed a total collapse to lose the title, Harvick reminded everyone that Johnson has a reputation for collapsing and probably would again.

Or, when a Driver of the Year panelist told Harvick that Johnson was going to edge him in voting, Harvick told him he’d never accept the award in any other season if he didn’t get it this year.

“He’s still defiant, still has that streak in him that you get small glimpses of every now and then,” DeLana sighed.

But Harvick does have a valid point on the Driver of the Year award.

Both he and Johnson had incredible seasons, but Harvick achieved his while running 71 races in two different series that often required him to fly between venues. He’d be in Pocono, Pa., in the morning, Martinsville, Va., in the afternoon, then back to Pocono before bedtime.

So for Harvick to be so dominant while under such pressure left even his rivals in awe.

“A lot of us had really great seasons,” said Denny Hamlin, one of four other Cup drivers who ran the full Busch schedule and tried to challenge Harvick this year.

“We all put together seasons that should have won the (Busch) championship, we were all that good this year. The problem was, Kevin was phenomenal, just incredible. It was really unbelievable to watch.”

A lot of it had to do with down-to-the-minute preparation by a staff that made it possible for Harvick to simply show up. It was much calmer than 2001, when Harvick also ran both schedules under much different circumstances.

He was only scheduled to run the Busch Series that season, but when Dale Earnhardt was killed in the season-opening Daytona 500, Childress tabbed Harvick to replace him. He made his Cup debut a week later, married DeLana days after that, then embarked on a grueling year that he was unprepared for both mentally and physically.

Although he won the Busch title that season and was Rookie of the Year in Cup, he struggled mightily along the way.

Not so this time around, leading Harvick to declare this year the best of his career.

“This championship is very different in a lot of ways – in 2001, there was so much going on and our lives were changing so much you almost couldn’t enjoy it,” he said. “This year we’ve been able to enjoy it. It would be hard pressed in our racing world, in today’s age of racing, to have another year like this one.”

AP-ES-12-08-06 1136EST

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