Kevin Harvick faces stiff test in Chase
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- This is why there is a Chase.
With no Chase, it would take a catastrophic collapse for Kevin Harvick not to claim his first Sprint Cup championship.
Under the old system, it would be lights out.
But the Chase gives teams such as surging Roush Fenway Racing (Carl Edwards finished third, Greg Biffle fourth and Matt Kenseth fifth) a chance to turn an average regular season into a championship run. It gives four-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who looked human again with a 12th-place finish, a shot at making more history.
It keeps things interesting in a season in which Harvick has been by far the most consistent.
"I feel like the guy that performs well through the season deserves something," Edwards said after his sixth straight top-10. "But this Chase is good for us right now, for sure. I don't think there is a favorite right now.
"If you look at how our team is coming on, Denny running really well, anybody could still steal the show. The fans are in for a fairly dramatic show. It could be really good -- exciting. Could be really exciting."
Like the Chase or not, that is undeniable.
But if there is a favorite and his last name isn't Johnson, it has to be Harvick. He hasn't been as spectacular as other drivers. The win was only his third of the year, two shy of Hamlin and Johnson.
What he has been is unbelievably consistent with 19 finishes inside the top 11 and only two outside the top 20.
"I don't think you can put together any 10-week stretch during the course of the year where Kevin has been off," Hamlin said. "He's always been solid. Even when we had that 10-week stretch where we won all those races, there were a few bad races in between. I'm sure probably Kevin scored the most points still in that 10-week stretch.
"He's been a guy that has been super solid. I don't see how he can't be the favorite going in."
The scary part is Harvick's team may be getting stronger with new Earnhardt Childress Racing engines that seem to be producing more power than ever. That was evident early in the race when he was told via radio that if he kept driving like he was nobody could touch him.
When he took the lead from Hamlin with 10 to go, he was told, "Drive away. He can't catch you."
Hamlin couldn't, and he knew it.
"I definitely couldn't suck up to him like he sucked up to me," he said.
But because there's a Chase, that doesn't matter. If the playoffs started today, Hamlin and Johnson would start 20 points ahead of Harvick with bonus points earned from their five wins.
And a lot can change over the next three weeks. You have to believe Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have something up their sleeves. You know Joe Gibbs Racing is looking at ways to gain more horsepower.
Don't forget the Roush Fenway cars, either.
"We're close," Edwards said. "We had as fast a car as anyone. That's about all you can ask for at this level right now. It's pretty amazing how competitive it is. The Chase could be really, really good for us."
It could be really, really great for Harvick, who wants nothing more than to put a Cup title with the two he's won in the Nationwide Series. The reason he re-signed with RCR earlier this year is because the organization made the necessary changes to become championship caliber after a season of failing to put a car in the Chase.
You let your team do the talking. Sure we have the team to win the championship, but we ain't going to be cocky about it.” -- Richard Childress
"Three more weeks of vacation and then we can go back to the pressure cooker for the last 10," Harvick said. "I'm just real excited. It can all go wrong, but it's been such a great turnaround."
It's been an unbelievable turnaround. This time a year ago Harvick wasn't in the top 20 in points. He was so disgruntled that there were reports he would not return to RCR beyond this season, that he wanted to be released.
But he hung around, getting a commitment from Childress and the rest of the organization to do a complete overhaul, from quality control to engineering. He already has more top-5s (11) than he had top-10s (nine) a year ago.
"You guys still have a hard time believing it's turned around," Harvick told reporters in the media center.
Harvick easily could have won the Daytona 500 had it not been for multiple restarts. He could have won the following week at California had he not by his own admission "forced the issue" because it had been so long since he'd won.
He doesn't force anything these days. Sunday he simply took the high line that he studied watching old film of Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- who finished 19th, by the way -- and drove past Hamlin on a track where he had only two top-5s in 19 previous starts.
But Harvick isn't bragging. He knows until he beats Johnson this simply is a good run.
"It's like saying you're going to beat somebody who has won the last four Super Bowls," Harvick said. "Until you beat that guy, there's no need to put that pressure on you."
Childress agrees. He doesn't want to talk big now and then leave the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway with his "head between our tails."
"You let your team do the talking," Childress said. "Sure we have the team to win the championship, but we ain't going to be cocky about it."
With no Chase, Harvick could be as cocky as he wants. He could pop the cork tonight and start to celebrate.
It would be like his first trip to Michigan in 1999, when Dale Earnhardt looked at him and said, "Who the hell are you?" Dale Jarrett left the track that day with a 314-point lead and coasted to a 201-point victory over Bobby Labonte.
Harvick can't coast.
"Do you think it would probably go over well if we went on vacation?" Harvick joked. "Probably not. I mean, right now we're in a fortunate position to be doing what we're doing. I've been in that 12th-, 13th-place battle and it sucks, to be honest with you. You can't sleep at night. You can't do anything to get your mind off of that.
"Whether it's engines, parts, pieces, over the next three weeks we'll try to get a little better. We're going to enjoy it and we're going to hopefully be ready for the last 10 weeks."
That's because there's a Chase.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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