COLUMBIA, S.C. – Kevin Harvick knows things are much different for him now than a year ago, even though he's almost in the same spot as 2014.
Harvick had two victories and stood second in points after 21 races 12 months ago, anxiously trying to keep focused on chasing down an elusive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. With that quest behind him, it is a more confident, savvy racer poised to keep that success going.
"One hundred percent, absolutely," Harvick said Tuesday. "Whether it's the confidence in knowing you can beat everybody in the garage on pit road, you in the seat or Rodney (Childers, crew chief) making a call. That's the confidence it instills in you."
So that's why Harvick wasn't sweating that much about going out of Pocono early last week, a failing engine the culprit after 20 laps, and finishing 42nd — his worst showing of the season.
Harvick entered the race No. 1 in points and, despite the mishap, left the same way.
Consistency has been Harvick's trademark this season, finishing in the top nine or better in 18 of 21 races. He has led the points since his win in Las Vegas in March and is a strong contender for a second consecutive Sprint Cup crown.
"I'll let you guys put that into perspective how good the year has been after a situation like that (at Pocono) because I'm pretty fortunate to be in that position," Harvick said. "I tell people all the time I just have a great team and they just do a better job than most of the garage in getting stuff right."
Not much has gone wrong for Harvick since bringing a successful program — he had 23 wins and finished in the top five for the championship six times in 13 years racing for Richard Childress — to Stewart-Haas Racing last season.
The connection was almost immediate, Harvick quickly gaining a spot in the NASCAR playoffs with a couple of early victories before maintaining his position for the 10-race chase. Harvick and his team turned things up when it counted most with November wins at Phoenix and Homestead to secure the long-sought drivers' championship.
Harvick came into the year confident the No. 4 Chevrolet could duplicate its success and has enjoyed seeing those beliefs play out on the race track in 2015.
"I just feel good about everything. I feel way better about it than when we were at this point last year just because of the way everything has gone. We continually advance and are competitive from a week to week standpoint," he said.
Harvick and Ryan Blaney were on hand at the South Carolina Governor's Mansion to display throwback cars they'll run at the Southern 500 on Sept. 6. Harvick said track organizers have done a strong job tapping into Darlington's history as a NASCAR staple and earned back their long held spot at the end of the summer.
"The things that they have built around this event are a credit to the track," Harvick said.
GOOSE BUMPS: AJ Allmendinger says he still gets chills when he watches a tape of his race-winning performance at Watkins Glen from a year ago. Allmendinger held off Marcos Ambrose over the final two laps last August for his first Sprint Cup victory.
"I'd be lying if I said I don't question myself all the time. So, when I go back and watch it, it still gives me chills watching going up through the Esses and beating and banging," he said.
Allmendinger returns to Watkins Glen International this week to defend his lone Sprint Cup title at the Cheez-It 355 on Sunday. He had top 10s in two of NASCAR's first three races, but did not post another until finishing seventh last week at Pocono.
LEAVE IT TO CHEEVER: Eddie Cheever III, son of former Indy 500 winner and Formula 1 driver Eddie Cheever Jr., will race in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East at Watkins Glen on Friday.
Cheever III is a 22-year-old native of Italy who hopes to one day drive in NASCAR's highest series. He was rookie of the year in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series in 2014.
"I'm really excited about this great opportunity to take another step in my career in NASCAR," Cheever said. "My goal is to become a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver and the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series opens this door for every European driver. This is a new step forward toward it."
Cheever III said he'll race for the win, but also hopes to soak up as much knowledge as he can from competitors in his classification — and from NASCAR's top drivers on hand for the Sprint Cup and Xfinity events "as it will be my first ever weekend at a NASCAR race in the U.S.," he said.
Cheever's career began in open wheel racing, where he won the Italian Formula 3 European Series and a Formula 1 test with Ferrari in 2012. He joined the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series in 2014 and finished third in points after winning three races.
FEEL THE BEAT: The official drum line of the NFL's Buffalo Bills is trading in the football field for the racetrack.
The group will perform during driver introductions at the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen on Sunday. The drum line will also perform for fans on the Midway in the Watkins Glen infield before the race.