The fact that he has put himself in that position is an accomplishment in itself, Harvick said, and allows him to approach the weekend with anticipation and excitement – not worry and trepidation.
“I was more nervous about starting the Chase and more uptight as we went through the first five, six, seven weeks about not being able to be in contention when we got to this point,” Harvick said Thursday. “Sure, we’re 46 points behind, but I was more nervous about failing to get to this point than I had been last week or this week.
“I’ve been more relaxed this week than I have been the whole Chase, to be honest with you, because this is the moment you live for. This is the easy part, in my opinion, to go out and race the car for a championship. This week you get all the things that you asked for. The only thing that’s not guaranteed is the championship.”
Part of the joy of this season, one in which he led the point standings much of the year, has been experiencing the turnaround at Richard Childress Racing, Harvick said. RCR’s cars missed the Chase last year, and Harvick was 19th in points.
“You look at last year, it was just a total disaster,” he said. “It was the worst year that we’ve ever had at RCR. So it’s a win-win situation for us. There’s no losing in a situation for everybody at RCR and myself.
“We’ve learned a lot of things that can help us go forward. Dealing with the pressure is easy at this point. I was more worried about failing to get to this point.”
Harvick said it’s appropriate that the season’s top drivers – he, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have combined for 17 wins in 35 races – find themselves wrestling for the title in the year’s final event.
“I think it’s fun to be able to challenge yourself and race against the best guys that have been the best all year to see where you stack up in the end,” he said. “I think it’s the best way that it could have shaken out.
“For us, it’s all positive from here. We’re going to finish either where we are [third place] or better when we get done. So we’re just going to go out. The guys have done a great job. They brought probably the best car we’ve taken to the racetrack all year as far as everything we have to measure it as far as dynos and wind tunnels. We’ll just go out and see what happens.”
Harvick used a Thursday press conference to kid Hamlin about the poor fuel mileage the No. 11 Toyota registered at Phoenix last week and said the No. 29 team will race from a position of comfort Sunday.
“It’s one of those scenarios where we don’t have any pressure on us,” he said. “We go and we race as hard as we can. Hopefully, they put that same carburetor on Denny’s car that they had last week.
“I think the 11 needs to make a mistake. We’ve got to outrun both of them. So for us it’s very simple: You let it all hang out, see where it all falls in the end, see where the mistakes crop up this week.”
If performance and circumstance give Harvick his first Cup title, Johnson’s four-year streak finally will end.
“It’s just when a guy’s won four in a row, you beat your head against the wall and wonder, ‘Why can’t we be competitive enough, why can’t the whole sport be good enough to keep somebody from winning four in a row?’ ” Harvick said.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.