What? Me worry?
Kevin Harvick had just struggled to a 14th-place finish in the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, where race winner Matt Kenseth had twice put him a lap down.
Nevertheless, the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion seemed blithely unconcerned — even confident — as he fielded questions from reporters after the race.
Why? Because Harvick already had begun looking ahead with relish to the defense of his title in the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup that begins with Sunday’s MyAFibRisk.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
And because he knew masterful crew chief Rodney Childers already had been planning for the Chase for weeks.
So as Harvick heads to Chicagoland Speedway for next week’s first event in the three-race Challenger Round of the Chase, he has solid reasons for optimism.
“I know how much preparation and time everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing and especially Rodney and all our guys on our No. 4 team have put into going to these next three weeks,” Harvick said. “It’s just what it’s all about.
“It’s a whole different way of racing. It’s a whole different mind-set as you go into Chicago, and it’s kind of take-no-prisoners. ‘I don’t like you, and I know they don’t like me,’ so you race like that on every lap, and we’re going to go after it.”
As Harvick and teammate Kurt Busch enter the Chase, much of the conversation will revolve around the recent strength of Joe Gibbs Racing, and deservedly so. Collectively, JGR cars won seven of the last nine regular-season races.
Lest we forget, however, Harvick ended the regular season as the series leader, having accumulated 978 points in 26 races, good for a 30-point margin over second-place Joey Logano. Harvick has two victories and a remarkable 10 runner-up finishes to his credit this season, and he led the series in top fives (18) and top 10s (22).
During JGR’s dominating run over the last nine races, Harvick has finished second twice, third three times and fifth once — a far cry from backmarker status.
Accordingly, those currently entertaining the possibility of an all-Gibbs contest in the final round of the Chase at Homestead-Miami Speedway would be wise not to ignore the defending champion, who seized his first series title last year by winning the final two Chase races, at Phoenix and Homestead.
Harvick sees that experience as a distinct advantage, and he seems eager to embrace a Chase mentality that harkens back to his days as a pugnacious kid from Bakersfield, California.
“I feel like as a team we have been there, done that,” Harvick said after Saturday night’s race. “We’ve been in Phoenix and Homestead pressure situations and succeeded in both of those situations. I think when you look at the group (of Chase qualifiers), there’s not a lot of them that have done that, and you’ve just got to keep pressure on them.
“And I think, as you go into Chicago, you just know that you’re not going to make any friends, and you don’t have to worry about it. You have to worry about what you have to do to advance to get to the next round every three weeks, and whatever the scorecard looks like or whatever you have to do is what you have to do. It’s not about making more friends.”
And what about teammate Kurt Busch, winner of the inaugural Chase in 2004? Like Harvick, Busch has shown speed throughout the season, and his pairing with veteran crew chief Tony Gibson has been serendipitous.
“Yeah, this is a fantastic feeling going into the Chase this year,” said Busch, who recorded an average finish of 10.9 during the regular season. “The team and all the hard work that Tony Gibson and his guys have put in, I am just so proud to drive with him. Everything we’ve done this year has been at the expectation level that we wanted to achieve – couple wins, few poles, and the consistency.
“As the Chase starts, there are certain things you have to do to advance through each of the rounds. We are going to use the strength of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS race team, and rely on that to move through the first section of the Chase.”
In Harvick and Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing has two elite drivers, both of whom have emerged with a series title from the crucible of a stress-filled season finale at Homestead. Entering the final race of 2004, Busch led Jimmie Johnson by 18 points and Jeff Gordon by 21, the rough equivalent of four to five points under the current scoring system.
Busch overcame a broken right front wheel, finished fifth and prevailed by a mere eight points over race runner-up Johnson, who would have won his first championship in 2004, rather than 2006, had he been able to pass Greg Biffle for the win on the final lap.
Last year, in the debut of an elimination Chase format that pitted the last four eligible drivers against each other in the season finale, Harvick won his first championship by a half-second over Ryan Newman.
As Harvick noted, both Stewart-Haas drivers have “been there, done that.”
It would be foolish to assume they can’t do it again.