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Kevin Harvick roars into Homestead

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- People have been saying all season that NASCAR's revised Chase for the Sprint Cup format favors a driver who specializes at Homestead-Miami Speedway, site of next week's Championship Round.

Kevin Harvick knows that mastering Phoenix International Raceway is pretty darn important, too.

Harvick won both Sprint Cup races at the Desert Mile this year in impressive fashion. His victory back on March 2 was what initially qualified him for the 16-driver Chase, and his crushing win Sunday in the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 punched his ticket to Homestead.

"He was in another zip code," said Jeff Gordon, who was eliminated from Chase contention despite finishing second to Harvick at Phoenix. "There was no one who was going to get him today."

It's hard to remember a more dominant performance in the Sprint Cup Series than the one Harvick turned in at PIR. He led 264 of the 312 laps and consistently fended off his rivals during a series of restarts that followed a race-record 12 cautions.

He was 1.637 seconds ahead of Gordon at the checkered flag, with Matt Kenseth third and Brad Keselowski fourth.

Despite those excellent finishes, all three were eliminated from the Chase, as pole sitter Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano rebounded from early race difficulties to finish fifth and sixth to claim Championship Round berths on points.

Ryan Newman clinched the last entry into the final four with a dramatic last-lap pass of Kyle Larson that sent Larson hard into the Turn 4 wall.

In the space of a few seconds, Newman was in and Gordon was out.

"I did what I had to do and I kept it as clean as I possibly could," Newman explained. "I didn't like to do it that way, but there's a lot on the line here."

While Hamlin and Logano bounced back from pit stop dramas, Harvick controlled the race from the front.

The eight Chase-eligible drivers all finished in the top 15 as the cream rose to the top with a trip to Homestead on the line.

But just as they were seemingly all year long, Harvick and the No. 4 Chevrolet out of Stewart-Haas Racing were the class of the field.

Everyone was racing for second place on Sunday, and Gordon -- for one -- believes that the Budweiser car is the one to beat at Homestead.

"I like Harvick," Gordon told reporters after the race. "I think Harvick looks really good."

"Hey, we're standing right here!" protested Logano and Hamlin, standing nearby.

"He led the most laps all year," Gordon responded. "I know Denny led the most laps at Homestead last year and is really strong there.

"But it seems like [the No. 4 team] got the bugs worked out in their team they had earlier in the year," he added. "They'll be tough to beat down there."

Harvick backed up his spring win at Phoenix with another victory at Darlington Raceway. But he then went through a five-month winless streak, during which just about everything that could have prevented him from winning races happened.

It all came together at the right time for him and the Rodney Childers-led crew as they triumphed at Charlotte Motor Speedway. A disastrous start to the Eliminator Round, when he was inadvertently spun out by Kenseth, could have put an end to Harvick's championship challenge.

But a second-place finish at Texas followed by Sunday's win locked him into the exclusive group of contenders heading to Homestead.

"Wow!" Harvick exclaimed in Victory Lane. "I guess that's what it feels like to hit a walk-off in extra innings.

"This thing [his No. 4 Chevrolet], both races here, has been bad to the bone. Here we come, Homestead!"

Phoenix was one of the first tracks that Harvick, a native of Bakersfield, California, traveled to when he was a kid, cheering on regional stock car drivers like Rick Carelli.

Now that he's an established pro, Harvick has turned PIR into his personal playground. Sunday's win was his sixth at the flat, low-banked mile, tops among active drivers.

Four of the wins have come since the track was repaved and re-profiled in 2011.

"This place is really good to me personally," he said. "I've raced here since the early '90s. For me as a kid, this was our Daytona 500, even though none of the shiny stuff was here. This place had a dirt infield and tumbleweeds blowing around.

"So to come here, and to have this moment and have these wins and accomplish the things we've been able to accomplish here, is really cool."

If Phoenix is unrecognizable compared to 20 years ago, Harvick's career underwent a similar transformation this year. He joined Stewart-Haas after 15 years with the Richard Childress organization, joined by a new-to-the-team crew chief in the form of Childers.

The No. 4 team jelled from the start -- literally from their very first test together at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"You could pretty much sum this whole year up as 'Holy Cow!'" explained Harvick. "Since we unloaded the car at that first test, it's had speed, and no matter what we've done or what kind of dumb mistake I make, we've always supported each other.

"To see this team build throughout the year, that has fueled life back into me, to come to the racetrack and be a part of this," he added. "It's been fun to go through the ups and downs. Coming over here and racing this year has given me new life and a new perspective on the way things work."

It has also put him in position to clinch his first Sprint Cup Series championship. In fact, whoever triumphs next week among Harvick, Logano, Hamlin and Newman will be a first-time champion.

Right now, many people are calling Harvick the favorite. Fast all year long, the No. 4 group is putting things together at exactly the right time.

"You just go down there and approach the week like we approached this week," Harvick said. "Have fun with it, prepare your cars like you've done all year and feel like you've already been in that position as far as knowing how to mentally prepare yourself.

"We came in here and did it this week. We won the race with our backs against the wall. We had great pit stops, great practices, they prepared the car great in the shop.

"We just have to do it one more week."