RICHMOND, Va. – Every indication the last three months is that Joe Gibbs Racing is going to be a major force in NASCAR's playoffs.
But if anyone thinks JGR's four-car lineup is going to run away with the title, reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick has other ideas.
Harvick, who finished 14th in the regular-season finale Saturday night, gave no indication he's intimidated by JGR. Matt Kenseth won at Richmond International Raceway for his third victory in six races, and JGR's eighth win in 11 Cup events.
Because those eight wins have been divided by Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, Harvick doesn't see one standout team in the group capable of sustaining a 10-race playoff run.
"You can't be good once every three weeks, you've got to be good for 10 weeks," Harvick said. "I know those guys have run fast, (but) it's been a different Gibbs car that we've raced against for the last 10 weeks. As a company, they've had some good success in winning races, but it hasn't been the same car.
"Hopefully they'll be peaky like they normally are and we can capitalize on the solid momentum we've had throughout the last two years and do what we have to do."
The Chase begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in the second year of its elimination-style format. Harvick prevailed last season with three Chase victories — a win in each of the first three rounds automatically advances a driver into the next segment — that included a victory in the championship-deciding finale.
But he was also consistent, with just one finish lower than 13th.
Harvick has been even steadier this year: His 22 top-10 finishes through 26 races are remarkable, but what's most impressive are his 10 runner-up finishes. Although others have been faster at times this season, he's certain his Stewart-Haas Racing team can win a second-consecutive title.
"I don't know that we're the team to beat," he said. "But I know that we can beat anybody as we go through a week-to-week basis on any style racetrack."
WATCHING THE COMPETITION: There was a great deal of satisfaction at Chip Ganassi Racing when Jamie McMurray took the green flag Saturday night and wrapped up his first career berth in the Chase.
But it's been almost three years since McMurray's last victory, and he's only got one win in almost six seasons.
Team owner Chip Ganassi, who just celebrated the IndyCar championship the team won when Scott Dixon won the race to rally from third in the standings to the title, understands the organization needs to be better for McMurray to have his own shot at a title.
And even that might not be good enough to get past the Gibbs contingent. There was a stretch Saturday night in which the Gibbs cars ran first, second, third and fourth and seemed untouchable to the rest of the field. Meanwhile, McMurray and teammate Kyle Larson were following the Toyotas in their Chevrolets.
"I think we can give it a shot here, I think we can drill ourselves deep into it," Ganassi said. "(But) the final four, looks like it might be one team the way I'm looking at it. I noticed for a while we were running first and second in class, but I think we were fifth and sixth."
GORDON'S LAST CHANCE: Jeff Gordon quietly secured his berth in his final Chase by putting together a solid run at Richmond.
But if things don't change quickly, Gordon will have no shot at winning a fifth championship. He's retiring at the end of the year, and his final season has come at a downtime for Hendrick Motorsports.
A year after Gordon came within a point of making it to the championship round, he's so far winless and the last Hendrick victory this season was Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win at Daytona on July 5. The organization also failed to get all four of its cars in the Chase as Kasey Kahne missed the cut for the first time since he joined Hendrick.
"We're behind. We know that," Gordon said. "But there's a lot of ways to make it to Homestead and there's a lot that can happen and we're working as hard as anybody to try to see what we can do better, learn from our competitors, and try to catch up."
Gordon also thinks Earnhardt, who has two wins and 17 top-10 finishes, is the best in the Hendrick fleet right now.
"We work hard together to try to improve for each of us, and if we continue to do that, we'll make gains," he said. "There was a lot of pressure in this final season to make that Chase, so I'm glad we got that done."
HELLO, NEWMAN: Ryan Newman is back in the Chase for a second consecutive year, and is again winless on the season.
Newman defied the system last year by using consistency to make it to the final round, and he finished second in the final standings despite failing to earn a trip to victory lane.
Newman doesn't think that strategy will work again this season, mainly because he lost the title in part because Kevin Harvick won the finale.
"You've got to win. You've got to win when it comes to the last race, for sure," Newman said. "And every race in between that, it helps to win. You don't have to win, but the last one is the one that's important. So, you've got to build up to that and keep yourself in the hunt and build up to that."