NASCAR's second season begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, as 16 drivers and their respective teams square off in the first of 10 races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Only one of those drivers, though, has ever won in the current Chase format and he remains one of the favorites this year.
Last year, in one of the most dramatic stretch runs in NASCAR history, Kevin Harvick drove his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to victory in the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix International Raceway and then again a week later at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
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To win the championship, Harvick had to win the final two races of the year and he did just that. Harvick, crew chief Rodney Childers and the entire No. 4 team came up huge precisely when they had to, which makes them battle-tested going into this Chase.
In the playoffs, Harvick will face brutal competition from Joe Gibbs Racing, which has won 11 races so far in 2015, and Team Penske, four-time winners. And there's always a chance Hendrick Motorsports could come alive after a summer of torpor or Harvick's teammate, Kurt Busch, could suddenly get hot like he did in his championship season of 2004.
That said, Harvick is confident, cocky and fast, just as he's been all year. While JGR has dominated the headlines in recent weeks, Harvick quietly set a record for most points in NASCAR's regular season in this scoring system. In 26 regular-season races, Harvick won twice, finished second 10 times and posted 18 top fives and 22 top 10s. The No. 4 has been bad fast most every time it rolled off the trailer this year.
At Chicagoland Speedway, site of Sunday's MyAFibRisk.com 400, Harvick will start from the pole thanks to being fastest in practice on Friday, before qualifying was rained out.
It's entirely possible that Matt Kenseth or Joey Logano or Jimmie Johnson or someone else wins this year's NASCAR championship, but as the old wrasslin' adage goes, "To be The Man, you've got to beat The Man." And right now, Harvick is The Man. And he's equally good at talking the talk and walking the walk.
More to the point, 15 other drivers -- some of them supremely talented -- believe they can win a title in this format. But only Harvick and has team have actually done it already, and that's an advantage not to be taken lightly, something that even his rivals admit.
"Nobody has ever had quite that pressure to win a championship -- (Tony) Stewart and Carl (Edwards) kind of did (in 2011), they ran one-two and whoever won was going to win it, so that was kind of the same thing -- but to able to do that in this format, to be behind and step up to the plate, absolutely, I think that gives him (Harvick) an advantage," said Matt Kenseth, the only one of the four JGR drivers with a Sprint Cup championship so far.
Crew chief Childers said that while the JGR squadron is formidable, the No. 4 is ahead of where it was a year ago.
"I feel a lot more prepared for this year," said Childers. "I feel like we've got our ducks in a row a lot better than what we did last year. Just having that notebook (from last year) is really what I feel is going to help us out."
"The good part about where we are is you don't have to change anything," said Harvick. "You just go about what you're doing. There's a lot of them that are looking to change something. We feel like for us, the intensity level, we know it changes. And how you handle those situations. For us, on the racetrack isn't going to change.
"I think that the way that you handle things and the circumstances and the situations you are approached with -- you have to understand how to deal with those things."
One of those things is the trash talking that's integral to championship season.
Harvick fired the first shot of the war of words when asked about the recent dominance of JGR during Thursday's NASCAR media event in Chicago.
"I think we're going to pound them into the ground," Harvick said of JGR. "That's what I think. Hopefully, they can beat themselves."
Then he added, "I don't know that we're better than them, but I think for us, it's all about having the experience. It's really not about having the fastest car. It's about having the experience to be able to go out and handle the emotions of the 10 weeks."
Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion who's been through these wars before, said Harvick's mind games just might prove to be an advantage.
"It's just Kevin's personality," said Gordon. "I think he does it in good fun, but he also knows that there are certain individuals out there that, that can affect them and maybe give him an edge. And so, he's going to try to get every edge that he can get."
Gordon did allow as how Harvick's trash-talking could come back to bite him.
"The thing is, if there is one major competitor of his that it works on, then I think that's a win for him," Gordon said of Harvick. "But, it can go the other way, too. And you get pounded in the ground and then all of a sudden you're going to have to deal with those questions in the media."
Logano, who in the past had spats with Harvick and is a serious title contender again this year, said he tries to tune out the trash talk.
"You just ignore it. That is obviously a championship driver and he has been through stuff like that before," Logano said of Harvick. "The best I know how to deal with things is to speak with your performance and with your car. I am not the wittiest guy out there so I decided to just drive the car and shut up. You just block it out and you drive your car."
Naturally, the JGR drivers downplayed Harvick's comments.
"That's talk," said JGR's Carl Edwards. "We'll go race and see how it turns out, but I think statistics and our performance really speaks for itself. We're pretty fast."
Edwards' teammate, Kyle Busch, dismissed the trash talk, too. But he admitted that Harvick is one of the top championship threats nonetheless.
"He's certainly one of the top guys I look at," Busch said of Harvick. "I look at us four Gibbs cars first and then I look at the 4 (Harvick), I look at the 22 (Joey Logano), I'd look at the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) because you can never count them out and then from there it's pretty even in my book."
"I think Harvick and the 4 team are just consistent every single week," Busch's crew chief, Adam Stevens, told FOXSports.com. "They're a factor at every style of track and every individual track we go to, so you'd be foolish to count them out."
At this point, no one is.