Kevin Harvick's best shot? Talladega
Three races remain after Sunday's AMP Energy Juice 500, but "if this were the last race, I'd be pretty excited about it," Harvick said Friday.
He spoke with the sheepish smile of a driver who has been dominant in restrictor-plate racing this season. He won here in the spring, and at Daytona in July, and led the most laps in the Daytona 500 in February before getting shuffled back late.
Notoriously at Casino de Alabama, aka Talladega Superspeedway, "it's really anybody's race," said Johnson, who is gunning for a fifth straight Cup championship and leads Hamlin by six points and Harvick by 62.
Johnson just kept on whistling in the dark about the Halloween run on NASCAR's biggest track, on the supposedly haunted ground called Dry Valley.
"I really don't think this is Kevin's best chance," Johnson said.
If this is a casino for stock car racing -- and it is -- then Harvick is as near to a card counter as you'll find. In 19 career Cup starts here, he has zero DNFs.
"I think it's very possible for the 29 [Harvick] to leapfrog both of us," Hamlin deadpanned before adding, "as well as it's an opportunity for the 48 [Johnson] to distance himself from me and the 29, and it's another opportunity for me to get past all of 'em. We just don't know what's going to happen."
Where others deem this simply a place to escape without too much damage, Harvick figures he is past his iffy tracks and headed downhill through the stretch of the season.
"Obviously at this place anything can happen," he said. "Whether you're leading the race or running last, you can wind up in somebody else's mess.
"But I enjoy the restrictor-plate racing. I think it's something you have to think about a lot, with a lot of strategy involved in it, and you've got to have fast cars.
"And we've been able to put all those things on the racetrack this year."
There was that smile again.
Should Harvick win Sunday, he'll become only the second NASCAR driver to win three plate races in a season. The other was Dale Earnhardt, Harvick's predecessor at Richard Childress Racing, in 1990, and Earnhardt went on to win the championship.
Their two paths, 20 years apart, are eerily similar. Just as Harvick almost won this year's Daytona 500 for a shot at sweeping plate racing in a season, Earnhardt dominated the first 499 miles at Daytona in '90 before shredding a tire on debris in the third turn of the final lap.
The Talladega fall race historically has acted as a scrambler for the Chase, as drivers get caught up in the almost-inevitable massive pileups here.
Should Harvick win, and Hamlin and Johnson get collected in a "big one" or big ones early, then Harvick could jump as many as 99 points out front going into the final three races at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami.
It would be a major breakout.
"Yeah, it would be," he said. But he added, "You have the possibility of having a breakout, or you have the possibility of having a disaster."
He then launched into a soliloquy of political correctness about taking one race at a time, one lap at a time, but then betrayed it with the sly grin again: "Otherwise it would just be way too stressful."
And Harvick did not appear to be a stressed man standing at the back of his hauler, knowing the Earnhardt-Childress Racing co-op engines that power his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolets have been in thorough command on plate tracks this year.
Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500 on ECR power, and then led here late in the spring race before Harvick pulled a classic slingshot pass, straight out of the 1970s, to win at the checkered flag.
"It all worked out just as you would plan it out here in the spring," Harvick said. "I don't know that it'll ever work out that smooth again, but for us, we were able to dodge the wrecks and put ourselves in position for those last couple of laps to make that slingshot.
"You just don't know if it's going to come down to a big pack [charging for the win], or if it's going to be a two-car breakaway [as he and McMurray managed in April] or if you're going to be racing another two-car breakaway. A lot of it is circumstances and how you adjust."
But here came the grin again.
"But a fast car makes things a lot easier."
For aerodynamic help, Harvick will be looking for his favorite drafting partner, McMurray.
"If you go back and look at history, I mean, Jamie McMurray and myself have drafted together a lot," Harvick said. "We wind up together at the front of a lot of these races."
Harvick and McMurray like to run up front, hoping to escape the big wrecks in the middle, while Johnson historically likes to hang far to the back of the field in the early going here.
"I think I know what their [Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus] strategy is going to be," Harvick said, "and I don't know if I fall into that category quite yet."
Johnson has won but once here, in 2006.
"I know our record doesn't show us as a favorite here, but a lot of it is because of the strategy that we've run," Johnson said. "We just haven't been as strong. We've been at the back trying to be smart."
That may not be smart for this race in this Chase, when Harvick likely will try to use his strength early.
"This is certainly a track where he [Harvick] can gain or lose a lot of ground," Bowyer said. "So if we can get hooked up, yeah, we're going to work together."
But, Bowyer cautioned, "It's harder than you think to get in position to help "
"We don't have any team orders that say, 'Hey, go push Kevin, go make it so he can do it,'" said Burton, who added that his on-track squabble with Harvick at Martinsville last Sunday was healed entirely in a conversation this week. "If I can help Kevin, I certainly will. I won't do that if it puts me in jeopardy of hurting my team."
In April here, Harvick actually passed McMurray one-on-one at the finish line, without other drafting help.
Like the man said, a fast car really helps.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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