After a season during which he led the point standings a total of 20 weeks, including 16 in a row leading up to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, no one could have blamed Kevin Harvick for being upset about having to settle for less than a championship.

Instead, Harvick confessed again and again that he was downright ecstatic with the career-high third-place finish of his No. 29 Chevrolet team. Harvick trailed only five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and runner-up Denny Hamlin in the final points tally.

There certainly was part of Harvick that was disappointed in coming so close to winning his first Cup title, only to fall short. But mostly he was pleased to have bounced back after a tumultuous 2009 season that the driver was pleased to finally put out of sight in his rear-view mirror.

"For our team in particular, you look at last year, it was just a total disaster," Harvick said. "It was the worst year that we've ever had at Richard Childress Racing."

Considering Harvick has spent his entire Cup career driving the No. 29 for RCR, that's saying something. He came in under impossibly difficult circumstances in 2001, taking over the car owned by Richard Childress that had been driven until two weeks earlier by the legendary Dale Earnhardt -- who died on a last-lap wreck in that year's season-opening Daytona 500.

Yet he won twice that year, and two years later in 2003 began a six-year run during which he won a total of eight races and finished in the top five in points three times. He never finished lower than 14th in points during that stretch.

Then came 2009. As he prepared to enter the final year of his existing contract with RCR, Harvick and Childress feuded -- usually behind closed doors, but some of the acrimony leaked its way out into the public realm. The dispute appeared to take a toll in the garage and on the track, where Harvick struggled through a second consecutive winless season and failed to make the Chase for the first time in four seasons.

He ultimately finished 19th in points -- his lowest finish since 2002.

The sense that 2010 was going to be a whole lot different took hold immediately. He finished seventh in the season-opening Daytona 500 and followed that up with back-to-back second-place efforts in the next two races at Auto Club Speedway in California and Las Vegas, respectively. That vaulted him to the top of the point standings for the first time -- but it wasn't until after he cracked the win column again in dramatic fashion at Talladega in May that he began his run of 16 consecutive weeks at the top, leading up to the Chase.

Along the way, he won two more races -- another restrictor-plate event at Daytona in July and, more importantly, at Michigan in August.

"We knew when they won at Michigan, which proved they could win at other types of tracks, that they were going to be a factor in the battle for the championship all the way until the end," Johnson said.

Also along the way, Childress and Harvick agreed to a multi-year contract extension that will keep Harvick behind the wheel of the No. 29 Chevy for years to come.

"We are very excited to have Kevin back," Childress said. "He has written a lot of history for RCR."

"He stepped in the car when we lost Dale in 2001 and I don't know of any driver that could have stepped in there under the pressure and handled it the way he did. We'll always be grateful."

Even though he didn't win the championship in 2010, Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin said they could look back on the season with great pride.

"I think if you go back and look, it's almost been one of the best seasons that RCR has ever had in its history," Martin said.

The amount of cars passed by Harvick during the season was "astronomical" according to Martin. While some of that can be attributed to Harvick's long-time penchant for qualifying poorly, it underscored the driver's ability to get the job done in heavy traffic on the track. Martin attributed that to Harvick's mental toughness.

 

"Head games will not bother him because he's one of the best at playing head games to start with," Martin said. "I'm very, very happy to have a driver with that strong of a mental aspect about him. ... I wouldn't swap him for anybody right now."

Statistics bore out Martin's contention. Harvick finished the season with the top pass differential of all drivers (passes minus times passed), having executed the astounding total of 3,268 passes across the course of the season, or 500 more than he was passed himself. And while his average start was just 21.0, his average finish of 8.7 also ranked as tops in the series.

Harvick downplayed the fact that he passed so many cars, while admitting he was pleased with the season as a whole.

"We've had a lot of practice from passing cars from qualifying bad. I guess you just call it [being] a bad qualifier my whole career, from go-karts on up," Harvick said.

"But everybody on this team did a great job. Nobody gets too wound up about having something go wrong. ... For me, it's fun to be able to challenge yourself and race against the best guys that have been the best all year to see where you stack up in the end."

That turned out to be third overall in 2010. But Harvick said it showed that he and his No. 29 team, which will be backed by a new sponsor in Budweiser in 2011, has true championship potential at the Sprint Cup level.

"Richard and I have been through a lot together. We've talked about what we have to do to get to this point," Harvick said. "We've taken a huge step toward achieving those goals and put ourselves as a company back in contention to what looks to be hopefully consistency as we go forward to racing for championships.

"It's what we want to achieve as an organization. And Richard has been there at this level. I think all the pieces are there to do that. It's just about making it all happen.