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Kevin Harvick likes his chances as Chase gets underway

Kevin Harvick is the defending Sprint Cup champion and has two victories in the series this year. Does that make him the favorite? Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Kevin Harvick had led the Sprint Cup Series standings since the third week of the season until the checkered flag dropped Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.

Poof. His points lead has vanished. He sits fifth in the standings. Welcome to the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Not that Harvick seems all that worried. The defending Sprint Cup champion hasn't won since his two victories in March, but he has had eight runner-up finishes since then and 10 total for the year.

So what if Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have won eight of the last 11 races, including Kyle Busch winning four of those and Matt Kenseth winning three?

Harvick won't call himself the driver to beat, but he notes that his team thrived in the pressure of the 2014 Chase, the first year of the new format where four drivers are eliminated after each of the first three rounds of three races apiece, setting up a four-driver, best-finish-is-champion scenario in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"It's not about stats or what's pretty or not pretty -- it's about three weeks and making it to the next round, three weeks, making it to the next round, trying to get yourself in position for Homestead," Harvick said.

"The one thing I know that we can do, we've been in pressure situations, we've succeeded in both of them at the end of the year and we've been there, done that. I didn't see anybody around us do the same thing."

The stats say that Harvick should be in good shape. He had the best average finish -- 7.69 -- of any driver in the regular season. In the past 10 races, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has the fourth-best average at 8.6 behind Penske's Joey Logano (6.6), JGR's Busch (7.1) and Penske's Brad Keselowski (8.1).

In addition to the impressive stats by Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Denny Hamlin (9.1) and Carl Edwards (10.8) have an average finish in the past 10 races of at least eight spots better than their average over the first 16 regular-season races.

"You can't be good once every three weeks," Harvick said. "You've got to be good for 10 weeks. I know those guys have run fast. It's been a different Gibbs car that we've raced against [for the win] for the last 10 weeks. As a company, they've had some good success in winning races, but it hasn't been the same car.

"Hopefully they'll be peaky like they normally are and we can capitalize on the solid momentum we've had throughout the last two years and do what we have to do."

So does Joe Gibbs Racing have an answer? Their drivers have been a little streaky, although Busch has five top-2 finishes in the past 11 races. But he also has three finishes outside the top 10 in the past 10. Edwards has been the most consistent with a worst finish of 13th over the past nine races. Hamlin has been up and down, but he has four top-6 finishes to end the regular season.

And then there's Kenseth, who had dominating performances at Bristol and Richmond sandwiched between rough outings at Bristol and Darlington.

Harvick has had the consistency. His 978 points outscored Logano by 30 during the regular season and were the most of any driver in the first 26 races since the current points system was implemented in 2011, smashing the previous mark of 914 set by Jeff Gordon last year.

"[Harvick has] been on kind of a record deal there this year," Gibbs said. "He says they're stronger than last year. I believe that. Obviously that's a very strong car. ... We always talk about winning being super-important. To be quite truthful, being consistent is going to be a huge part of it, too.

"All 16 of these teams earned their way in. If somebody gets hot down the stretch -- we've seen it before, if somebody gets hot, they got a chance to win a championship. I just hope it's one of our cars."

Hamlin was the only JGR driver to make it into the final round of the Chase last year, and he had a shot at Homestead-Miami Speedway all the way to the end. He gambled by staying out on old tires for the late restart and fell to seventh while Harvick celebrated the win.

"I feel like I've been in the top-5 every week [recently] and if we haven't, something has happened to take us out of the top-5," Hamlin said. "It's all reset now, and it's a new season. As an organization, that's really good for us. It looks like all of our cars are consistently running in the top 10, which is what it is going to take to get consistently through the rounds.

"I think you're going to have to have winning-races speed in that final-8 [drivers in the semifinal] round. Those are my bread-and-butter racetracks when we get to that final eight, so I'm pretty confident. We are running better now than what we were last year when we got to the final four."

Kenseth believes his team isn't running just better than it was last year, but better than in 2013 when he finished second to Jimmie Johnson in what was then a 10-race Chase with no eliminations or resets throughout.

"We were really strong in the Chase in 2013," Kenseth said. "We ended up getting beat, but we were pretty strong, won a couple races, led a lot of laps. Jimmie beat us. We were really good.

"I feel like as a company right now, we're stronger than we were in '13."

Penske Racing also appears stronger. In seven of the eight races leading into Richmond, Keselowski or Logano has finished in the top-2. Logano was on the pole and finished third at Richmond.

"Gibbs has got strong cars," team owner Roger Penske said. "We might not have been quite as good as the 20 [of Kenseth at Richmond]. Ever since Kentucky, we've been first or second or third [at Richmond and] the pole position," Penske said. "I feel we've got the speed. We've got better cars coming for the Chase."

And that could be the key. No one knows what everyone has saved as far as quality equipment for the Chase. Johnson, the top seed heading into the Chase, has had an average finish of 13.5 in the last 10 races and is not considered a favorite despite his six championships and the Chase coming at some of his best tracks.

It also could be difficult to figure out who truly has momentum, because four of the races in the past nine were conducted with experimental aerodynamic packages that NASCAR won't use in the Chase.

"It's hard to say -- you just never know what people are going to bring," Edwards said. "You never know what trouble somebody is going to have. ... It also really doesn't matter what has happened up to this point. We're peaking. We're fast."

Harvick's average over the past 10 races is skewed a little bit by an engine failure at Pocono that relegated him to a 42nd-place finish. His 18 top-5s and 22 top-10s are the best of all drivers over the first 26 races. He has led more laps than any other driver and nearly 19 percent of all miles raced this year.

"There are going to be some things happen as we saw last year, circumstances you have to overcome, situations, people are going to gamble," Harvick said. "That's what this deal is all about.

"It's really not about having the fastest cars week in and week out, it's about capitalizing on situations. The guy who makes the least amount of mistakes is going to be the one who keeps advancing."

Or as Kyle Busch put it ...

"We've just got to do the right things and not screw it up ourselves here at the racetrack," he said.