Kevin Harvick takes a Ford into Homestead finale with Texas win

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Kevin Harvick loves challenges and often searches for the next one to motivate him.

He has received more motivation than he really wanted this year, as the challenges even exceeded what Harvick expected as Stewart-Haas Racing switched to Ford from Chevrolet.

A manufacturer change doesn't just mean changing engines, how they mount and the nose of the car. It means all new technology, as far as simulation programs and data analysis. It takes time to learn those new tools.

Add a Toyota emergence throughout the summer in dominating many of the races, especially at intermediate tracks, and Harvick has found this a season of challenges, even with 11 top-5s and one win heading into the AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday.

"[The challenge] was more than I anticipated for sure," Harvick said. "But my expectations going into the year, I was pretty open-minded of where things could go, and [that] there could be some struggles.

"The most important thing is try to motivate your people and how to keep them all together and really be thorough in the direction from a driver standpoint in the things that you tell them and the things that you push for to make sure they're right."

Harvick started to feel better about how his cars performed when the playoffs started at Chicagoland, where he led 59 laps and finished third. He led 149 laps at Charlotte and then 37 laps at Kansas.

So maybe it shouldn't have been too much of a surprise when he passed Martin Truex Jr. with 10 laps remaining Sunday at Texas and ran away for the win, clinching a spot among the four finalists at Homestead.

"I don't like to lose," said Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers. "It's been a hard year. To finally get one back into Victory Lane and to feel like we have something to race with the last four or five weeks is impressive to me."

While Harvick won the race, Truex was the happiest second-place finisher ever, as he also clinched a spot among the four finalists for the championship race Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Truex would earn one of the possible two berths available on points if he doesn't win next Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. He remains the championship favorite, despite Harvick's win.

"People are going to say, 'Well, I think the balance of power, this and that,'" said Truex, whose seven victories this year is five more than that of Harvick. "Did Harvick steal our confidence by beating us at the end? All that voodoo stuff I'm sure will be brought up.

"The bottom line is our last run we weren't as good as we needed to be. We got beat, but we still did what we needed to do."

With Truex in, that leaves five drivers vying for the final spot in the championship, joining Truex, Harvick and Martinsville winner Kyle Busch. Brad Keselowski has a 19-point lead on Denny Hamlin, while Ryan Blaney is 22 points back. Chase Elliott (49 points behind) and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (51 points behind) face virtual must-win situations, as the most points a driver can earn by finishing second is 55.

Among the three drivers who punched their ticket, Harvick is driving the only Ford. As Ford sponsors the championship weekend races, it adds a little bit more validation that pouring money into SHR was the right move.

"Even we said it was a big risk," SHR co-owner Tony Stewart said of the manufacturer switch. "At the same time, when we were looking and assessing whether it was the right thing to do, we said there's huge opportunities to be big rewards with it, as well.

"I don't know if it's validation yet. We still got a job to do these next two weeks to validate it."

Three or four months ago, it appeared SHR could get shut out from the championship. Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500 but couldn't execute in the opening round of the playoffs and found himself out after just three races.

Harvick had won just once -- at the road course in June at Sonoma -- and didn't have a car that led enough laps throughout the summer that gave him confidence he could pull off a win as he did at Texas.

But by around the time of that first win, Harvick said the team had found the direction it needed to take in the cars. It just took time to implement those ideas into the fleet of the four-car organization.

"Once they really started finding the things that were working and the areas to work on and the hot buttons of the car, then you've got to get them put into place," Harvick said.

"It's easy to draw them on the computer and take them to the wind tunnel. Sometimes the production doesn't keep up with the R&D side and you find yourself cutting bodies and things off that are brand new that never go to the track, and that's bad for morale. It's a balancing act of how fast you get there."

He's there now.

"We were able to get a couple of [our best] cars in the playoffs and we were fortunate to kind of keep ourself in the game," Harvick said.

"And here we are. Two weeks to go. We still have a chance."