Winning matters in NASCAR’s Chase playoffs, but only if you live in the moment. It’s always about the next race.
It’s as much a mental grind as it is a physical challenge. Three qualification rounds before championship run. Everything resets after each cutoff point.
Kevin “Happy” Harvick comes to Phoenix as the defending season champion and the most dominant driver in Phoenix International Raceway history. But none of that matters come Sunday afternoon when he competes in the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500. Harvick — like any Chase qualifier not named Jeff Gordon, the Martinsville winner two weeks ago — will lock himself into the Final Four at Homestead-Miami with a victory.
Anything less puts him into iffy territory.
“It’s definitely more mentally challenging,” Harvick said Friday before qualifying for eighth at 142.068 mph behind pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson’s 143.158 mph. “Just for the fact of the pressure that it puts on everybody. From getting in the Chase once you win a race, it kind of relieves that pressure until you get to Race 27 at Chicago.
“Then all of a sudden the pressure doubles or triples — whatever number you want to put on it — because you know that you have to perform that day at that moment.”
At the moment, Harvick needs a top-three finish — along with leading a lap — to assure himself of a transfer spot to Homestead. He is one point behind Kyle Busch (who will start 10th) and three ahead of Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) to reach the Final Four cutoff grid, along with Gordon. Harvick is also 10 points ahead of the guy feeling the fifth-place squeeze, Carl Edwards, who qualified fourth.
At the moment.
The encouraging news is that Phoenix is Kevin’s World, and the rest of the drivers are just passing through. Consider that he has won four consecutive races and five of the past six here. He’s also led 76 percent of the laps over the last three races.
“He will find different speed on the track all throughout a tire run,” said Kurt Busch, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate who snagged the second starting spot and also has a shot at advancing to the Final Four. “It might be corner entry at the beginning of the run. It might be corner exit at the later part of the run. He is able to find the last little bit out of this track that nobody else has been able to find over the years.”
Harvick and this place have a history.
Good history in this cramped one-mile low-banked tri-oval.
Originally from Bakersfield, Calif., Harvick grew up racing in Phoenix in the mid-’90s. Even before then, he remembers coming to the track to watch races “with my grandpa in the motorhome sitting around watching the cars go around.”
Now there are folks in the stands watching Harvick go round-and-round, usually up front.
“It’s just a fun place, and I feel like for me whatever reason throughout the years the flat-track stuff has always kind of fit my driving style, whether it be here or Loudon or any of those flatter types of places,” Harvick said. “It’s just been good for us throughout the years.”
If Harvick wins Sunday, he would extend his track record to eight overall Cup victories. He would also join a pair of NASCAR’s elite retired stars — Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip — as the only drivers with five consecutive victories at one track.
Win here, and the bigger picture comes into play. Defending a championship would become his first and foremost goal.
“You look at this particular Chase; it’s much different than last year’s Chase. But in the end it doesn’t matter how it looks on paper, it’s still a better position than we were at this point last year,” said Harvick, who had to win a year ago to advance. “It’s funny that you just have to, in a sense, play the game. Every week it’s a new game.”