Kevin Harvick sits third in the points, 12 behind leader Carl Edwards. He is tied for the series lead with three wins and only one other driver has run more lead laps than Harvick's 5,250. By any measure, he's as legitimate a threat as there is to win the Sprint Cup championship.
But there is a concern with Harvick as the regular season winds down, one that's unfolded over the past two months -- a span that, interestingly enough, also saw him move to the top of the driver standings for the first time this year.
After racking up five top-five finishes in the first 12 events, Harvick has wheeled his No. 29 Chevrolet to just one in the eight races since and is coming off finishes of 16th (Kentucky), 21st (New Hampshire) and 11th (Indianapolis). Over the past six races, nine other drivers have accrued more points than Harvick.
It's not a sign of a season on the brink. No, this is all about being aggressive. It's Harvick's approach to the races leading up to the 10-race playoff, which he's already qualified for. He's willing to push the envelope, all in the name of racking up another trip to Victory Lane before the Chase.
"That's what we're supposed to be doing this time of year, going for wins," he recently told Scene Daily.com."We could have probably finished sixth, seventh, eighth, somewhere in there pretty easily [by] sticking to everybody else's strategy. But we tried to do something different and it kind of bit us the last couple of weeks."
Those three bonus points per win would give Harvick a head start once the points are reset for the playoff, but is the pursuit even worth it? Consider this: Since the Chase began in 2004, only one driver -- Jimmie Johnson in 2007 -- has had more wins in the opening 26 races than anyone else and gone on to win the title (Tony Stewart was tied for the most victories in his championship season of '05).
Consistency is king in the 10-race playoff, yet Harvick is railing against it with the postseason on the horizon. He's gone against the conservative approach that has been a key to his success this year and is now more willing to take chances in both setup and driving style.
Therein lies the biggest difference between Harvick and Edwards right now in their preparation to try to end Johnson's five-year run atop the series. While Harvick is willing to gamble, Edwards is already racing like he's in the Chase. As he said after New Hampshire: "We're going to take these [last] races and treat them as practice for the Chase," he said. "If we can prevail over these guys in the points over the next eight weeks, there's no reason we can't do it in the important 10 races at the end of the year."
He, more than anyone, knows poise is indispensable in a title hunt. In '08, he was sitting second behind Johnson three races into the Chase. But after an infamous run-in with Harvick (of all people) that turned physical, Edwards seemed rattled, and his title chances were quickly derailed. Edwards has learned from the past and is now taking a businesslike approach to things.
A year ago, Harvick was employing this same aggressive strategy when he held a comfortable lead in the Chase. He won twice in the nine races before the playoff began, though in that period he was also 34th, 14th and 33rd. Harvick entered the Chase third and ended the season there, too. While he didn't exactly struggle, finishing outside the top eight just once in the postseason, it took eight weeks before he managed to post consecutive top-fives, something he did four times in the first 26 events.
Maybe the change in game plans had absolutely nothing to do with those struggles, or maybe it had everything to do with them. Harvick has six weeks to rein it in before the playoffs open in Chicagoland; six races to recapture the level of consistency that saw him rise from 36th to first this season.
Harvick's standing as a title contender isn't in question, but if he doesn't change his philosophy soon, it might be.
Danica Patrick and her GoDaddy.com dollars are reportedly headed to Nationwide, where, according to sources, she will run a full-time schedule with Hendrick Motorsports satellite team JR Motorsports. It's also reported she'll run a limited Sprint Cup schedule with Stewart-Haas Racing.
No matter your take on Danica's abilities, it would be a boon for NASCAR. Danica wouldl open the door to new fans and new sponsorship opportunities -- and her inclusion would add even more intrigue to a Silly Season that is already filled with it.
Patrick was never going to have an effect on Edwards. Likewise for Clint Bowyer, who is reportedly close to an extension with Richard Childress Racing, and Juan Pablo Montoya, who is expected to stay at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Danica, however, could have a direct impact on the futures of Mark Martin and Brian Vickers.
There's the chance that Joe Gibbs Racing could still expand to a fourth team, as it could have if Edwards had joined the fold, or that Red Bull GM Jay Frye saves the team (sans the energy drink's involvement), thus creating two positions. But what if those things don't happen?
Expansion doesn't appear to be in the works for most teams below the four-car maximum. Michael Waltrip has discussed it, but he's holding a ride for the eventual rise of Travis Pastrana. That leaves Richard Petty Motorsports, which now has strong financial backing, as the most logical team to add drivers -- but would it be willing to do so for either the 52-year-old Martin or Vickers?
They will land somewhere. Martin has alluded to the possibility of an owner/driver role (a la Stewart), and he could find a similar opportunity with a smaller team. It would also be hard to imagine Vickers, a former Nationwide champ and Chase participant, not finding a new home as well if Frye can't keep his organization afloat.
The market was tough enough already, but Danica's arrival would mean even less opportunities among the major teams for drivers already in limbo.
Jeff Gordon. There was time between 1996 and '99, back before he traded in the moniker Wonder Boy for Big Daddy, that Gordon was first or second at the Tricky Triangle a whopping seven times in eight races. He's never come close to that prolific run since, but in the last five trips to the track he's been eighth or better four times, including a trip to Victory Lane in June. Gordon is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, averaging a 6.6 finish in the last eight races, and that will continue with a sixth win in Pennsylvania.