LOUDON, N.H. -- They call him "Happy."
That nickname might have never fit better than it did yesterday for Kevin Harvick.
Nobody left New Hampshire International Speedway happier than Harvick, who jumped to the top spot of the NASCAR Nextel Cup standings after winning the Sylvania 300 before 101,000 at NHIS.
The race was the first of 10 in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Harvick started on the pole and had the dominant car most of the race, but at times he was forced to drive with some of the aggressive racing style that has marked his six years in Nextel Cup.
Harvick had a two-second lead on the field in the late stages before a caution on Lap 292 set up a four-lap shootout among Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Harvick easily pulled away, leaving Gordon and Stewart to battle for second place.
He ended up beating Stewart to the checkered flag by just under a second. Gordon held on for third.
Harvick went from third to first in the standings. It marked the first time in his career he has led the Nextel Cup rankings.
The dominant showing moved Harvick from a dark-horse contender to one of the favorites now to win the title.
"I tried to tear it up a couple times today just probably being a little bit too aggressive," Harvick said. " ... We just have to keep doing what we're doing at this point. If we keep winning races, doing what we need to do there, we're not going to get outscored in points."
Rookie Denny Hamlin, who came into the race fifth in the standings, moved to second with a fourth-place finish. Eight of the 10 drivers in the Chase finished in the top 16.
Jimmie Johnson, who came into the race second in points and one of the favorites for the title, finished 39th after losing a cylinder in his motor early, then crashing. Kyle Busch, who was fourth in the standings, hit the frontstretch wall on the third lap and never recovered. He ended up 38th.
It was the first victory at NHIS for Harvick, who led 196 laps. But it was a move to regain the lead early in the race that typified the hard driving style that has been his signature since he replaced Dale Earnhadt in the Richard Childress Racing ride after the legendary driver's death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
On Lap 36, Jeff Burton got under Hamlin for the lead out of Turn 2 and nosed ahead slightly down the backstretch. Burton and Hamlin went through Turn 3 side by side with Harvick prowling behind them. In Turn 4 Harvick threaded the needle between Burton and Hamlin, pushing Hamlin out of the groove and nearly into the wall coming onto the frontstretch.
Hamlin righted his car before hitting the wall and slid back to seventh.
"You would think he'd be a little cautious," Hamlin said. "All it did was cost me about seven spots at the time. He's faster, he won the race, it's all good. It was real risky at the time. Had it caused us a bad day, I would have probably ... ah, never mind. It was risky at the time and I was very surprised. ... He could have passed me in another five laps probably fairly easily."
Harvick conceded that the move was probably not the brightest that early in the race, but wasn't apologetic.
"I think at this point it's all about the championship and just going for it," Harvick said. "It's throwing caution to the wind and just going after winning races. If it would have went the other way, it probably would have been a bad move. In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have done it. ... Really, if you look back on it, I probably would have done it again."
Shawn Courchesne writes for The Hartford Courant.