Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet who led the regular-season point standings, knew he would have his work cut out for him once the chase began.
Before the first race at Richmond began, Harvick would hand over the points to lead to Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin, and fall back tied for the third spot with JGR driver Kyle Busch.
The realignment would not hamper the enthusiasm the No. 29 team carried into this season’s final 10 races, even though without the chase format Harvick would be on the heels of winning his first Sprint Cup Championship.
"It's been a phenomenal year, and hopefully the last 10 weeks can be the same way," said Harvick before the start of the final 10 races to decide this season’s champion."
Harvick also added that, "We have done it for 26 weeks—we have beat them. Hopefully we can beat them for 10 more."
The road ahead would be a long and treacherous one with many pitfalls waiting in the wings, along with having to contend against a four-time champion who looks to have the playoff format all figured out.
Unlike last season after missing the chase, Harvick has made his presence felt with four top-five and six top-10 finishes so far during the 2010 chase.
After finishing third during the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway a week ago, Harvick was able to cut into Jimmie Johnson’s chase points lead by 15 markers.
Harvick who started the race in the 36th position, worked his way to the front along with finding himself contending for his first chase victory of the season.
“Coming into this race, no one gave us a chance to even run anywhere towards the front,” said Harvick who finished two positions of Johnson.
Harvick also added that, “It’s nice to come here, get the finishes we feel like we deserve, that we’ve run well over the last few years, just haven’t got the finishes to show for it.”
Before the race weekend began at Martinsville, a pit crew swap was made between the No. 33 of Clint Bowyer and Harvick’s No. 29 because of the problems Harvick has been facing on pit road during the season.
Bowyer whose team was penalized after the first chase race knew he had the better crew, and his chances to win his first championship were over after NASCAR handed down a 150-point penalty.
"There is no question that my team is arguably the best team at RCR. They've been together the longest," said Bowyer after RCR made the announcement the two teams would switch pit crews.
Bowyer also added that, “With us being out of the championship deal, Kevin is the last shot at RCR at basically bringing a championship home. We owe it to everybody involved—all the employees—to try to bring that championship back home."
Harvick who entered this past weekend's race at Talladega Superspeedway only 62 points behind chase leader Johnson, put the heated battle that he and his teammate Jeff Burton had during the race at Martinsville behind them before the weekend was to begin.
Harvick was clearly upset when he said his teammate had cut him off, saying Burton had done the same thing at other races earlier in the season.
“A lot can be made out of things we say on the radio and obviously neither of us did a very good job at that,” said Harvick before the weekend's running of the Amp Energy Juice 500.
Harvick also added that, “The thing about Jeff and I is there is a lot of respect there. We’ve had those spats before, and we can handle those things in about five minutes.”
Burton couldn’t figure out why Harvick became so angry when he said, “I didn’t do anything wrong. And if he thinks I did something wrong, then we can’t race.”
Burton also went on to say that, “Both of us could have handled that situation better. The best way I can describe it is RCR is like a family, and sometimes families argue amongst themselves and carry on probably more with your family than with people you don’t even know."
Burton finished with, “We sat down and had a great meeting and talked about it. And we’ll be better teammates for it.”
Harvick who started the race on Sunday from the 14th position, was able to keep himself out of trouble enough to contend for the victory after a restart with four laps to go.
Harvick and Michael Waltrip Racing’s David Reutimann hooked after up after restarting sixth, and began to move to the front of the field.
After getting to the front on the white flag lap, a crash broke out with A.J. Allmendinger sliding to the inside of the track on his roof. NASCAR threw out the caution and froze the field, while he and his RCR teammate Clint Bowyer were racing side by side for the win.
NASCAR had to review the tapes to see who was leading at the time the caution came out, Bowyer was declared the winner with Harvick finishing second.
"I knew it was close, I just have to thank David Reutimann—he pushed me all day and he was really good behind us," said Harvick after the race.
Harvick also added that, "We came to the start/finish line, I thought I had beat him but I didn't know if the caution had come out at that particular time.”
By finishing five positions ahead of the chase leader Jimmie Johnson, Harvick was able to shave another 24 markers off his deficit, and put himself within 38 points of the leader heading into Texas for this weekend's race.
Harvick so far has kept to his pre-chase game plan when he said that, "I mean, that's what we came here to do. We came here to obviously lead some laps, run up front and try to win the race.”
With three races left to decide this season’s champion, Harvick has made it clear that he will not be taking the conservative route.
Harvick knows what Johnson and Hamlin are capable of coming down the stretch, and leading laps along with finishing out front of the two is the only chance he has of becoming a Sprint Cup Champion.
"You can't be conservative. You can't go there hoping for a top-10 because, as you've seen over the past few years, top-fives, leading the laps is what it's going to take over the next three weeks,” said Harvick whose last five races were all top-10 finishes.
Harvick also added that, “I just believe it's one of three cars that is going to do that and hopefully we can keep pace."
Maintaining a pace is a way to keeping up with Hamlin and Johnson, but with time quickly running out he will need to get around them, if he ever expects to be hoisting the hardware in Las Vegas come December.