Column: Kevin Harvick's mettle will be tested next 2 races

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson are not enemies. They have known each other since the early days of their careers, which began in California before the two crossed the country to North Carolina to take a crack at making it in NASCAR.

Broke and chasing big dreams, the two drivers born less than three months and 250 miles apart spent many a night crashing on a couch at Ron Hornaday Jr.'s house as they scratched and clawed for a break. They made it to Cup racing, becoming two of the biggest names in NASCAR along the way.

They always recognized the crossed paths in their careers.

When Johnson, eliminated from contention last November from winning a seventh championship, had a chance to help Harvick win his first Sprint Cup title, he opened up his notebook and turned into one of Harvick's most important weapons. After Harvick hoisted that championship trophy at the end of last season, he took time to credit the help he and crew chief Rodney Childers received from Johnson the entire weekend leading into the title-deciding final race.

''I felt like I was racing - practicing a little more amped than I probably needed to be, and Jimmie Johnson was a huge help,'' Harvick said after his win. ''He'd show up in the trailer after every practice and called and texted to Rodney and myself. You pull the data up, and I was making some pretty huge mistakes. So that eased my mind going into the day.''

Fast forward to this week, when Harvick's chances at winning a second consecutive title are shaky and his relationship with Johnson is suddenly strained. He shoved Johnson in the chest with a closed fist and had to be restrained from going after him again following a devastating performance Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.

It was all so Kevin Harvick.

The instigator of the Sprint Cup Series, the driver who has never backed down from anyone or any situation dating all the way back to his rollercoaster 2001 debut season, will not go down quietly.

Johnson knew this the moment their cars touched around the midway point of the opening race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. They were third and fourth on a restart, and a push from Joey Logano had shoved Johnson to the apron of the track. He had to get back onto the racing surface, and when he tried, Harvick's car was right there.

A full day later, both drivers likely think they could have done something differently.

But that's not how it played out, and the contact crumpled some sheet metal and pushed it against Harvick's left rear wheel. For two laps, the tire smoking from the friction, Harvick tried to get that sheet metal to give.

He should have pitted.

He didn't and the decision cost him dearly.

The tire exploded, Harvick crashed into the wall and he finished 42nd out of 43 cars, dropping him to last in the 16-driver Chase field.

As Johnson explained his version after the race, he had an idea that Harvick was going to be upset. Yet he chose to approach Harvick's motorhome to attempt a conversation he wasn't sure would happen.

''Hopefully he'll want to talk. There's no telling what he'll want to do,'' said the six-time champion.

It was the right thing for Johnson to do. He's known Harvick long enough to understand this dust-up needs to be repaired because Harvick could spend the next nine weeks making Johnson's life difficult on the race track.

Harvick was too hot to do it Sunday. The conversation didn't happen immediately. But it will. Harvick drives for Stewart-Haas Racing, a customer/partner of Hendrick Motorsports. If anybody knows how to diffuse a situation, it's Rick Hendrick, who will intervene if needed.

Harvick will arrive in New Hampshire with a much cooler head. He has no choice. He's got to either win of the next two races, or be as close to perfect as possible to continue his Chase. The field will be whittled to 12 after the Oct. 4 race at Dover, and Harvick needs to find a way into the second round.

He's the one driver no one should doubt can do this.

Against the ropes last November, needing to win at Phoenix to advance to the title race, he led 264 laps and routed the field.

Then, with help from Johnson, he won the next week to claim his first title.

He and his No. 4 SHR team have had a far stronger season this year - they've finished second an eye-popping 10 times - and they've been waiting since March to turn it up a notch for a run at the title.

Childers talked Sunday of another gear that Harvick has, of the confidence he has in his team to raise their game over the next nine weeks.

Right now, they only have to do it for the next two weeks, a stretch in which we'll see what Harvick is truly made of, and if his bark and his bite can keep his Chase alive.