Dustin Long
Monday October 17th, 2011

CONCORD, N.C. -- It was the moment this Chase had awaited. A moment of candor. A moment of swagger.

With the drama between Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch fading, this Chase has been in need of somebody whose words and actions would raise the intensity and tweak a competitor.

Instead, Kevin Harvick has been quiet, calm and missed. Until Saturday night.

While Matt Kenseth celebrated after winning Saturday night's race at Charlotte, Harvick spoke on his radio. He had just completed an up-and-down night with a sixth-place finish that kept him second in point standings to Carl Edwards halfway through the Chase. Harvick's voice was not tinged with anger or disappointment but elation with his finish at a track he says is one of his toughest.

"Leaving Charlotte,'' Harvick said, and one could imagine his smile just with those words.

"Only lost [four] points. It's on.''

Two words that few heard could reshape this Chase more than Jimmie Johnson's crash late in the race.

It's on.

This is the Harvick the sport has been expecting to see. When Harvick is running well, he's not afraid to say something to needle a fellow competitor. Or let his actions do the speaking.

He's done it the last two times he's been in the Chase. In 2008, Harvick and Edwards engaged in a shoving match in the Nationwide garage at Charlotte. Their confrontation was a carryover from the week before when Edwards triggered a multicar crash at Talladega. Harvick, who was caught up in the crash, chided Edwards and called him a "pansy.'' Edwards responded with a personal note left in Harvick's plane. When they got together at Charlotte, they soon had to be separated.

Last year, Harvick ran into Denny Hamlin's car during practice at Dover in retaliation for what Hamlin said earlier in the day. Hamlin criticized Richard Childress Racing and Clint Bowyer, whose winning car from the previous race failed a post-race inspection. Harvick's contact damaged both his and Hamlin's cars. They returned to their garage stalls where they were parked beside each other. The drivers briefly yelled at each other and series officials had to retain order between the crews.

Harvick's message was clear -- he would not allow anyone to disparage his organization. It's not that Richard Childress needed someone to defend him, but Harvick saw the criticism as an attack on all of Richard Childress Racing and that included Harvick.

"He was always kind of in the middle of something,'' said Hamlin, a friend.

For as fiery as Harvick was during his most recent Chase runs, he recognized that might not be the best way to a title. It may be coincidence, but Johnson has often steered clear of such disputes and not openly engaged drivers in a public disagreement (until recent issues with Busch) on the way to winning five consecutive championships.

Asked what he learned from previous Chases as he makes this year's title run, Harvick quickly said: "Mind your own business. That's the biggest thing.

"Do your own thing, worry about what you're doing. You don't need any added distractions at this point in the year. It's all about [your team] whether it's on the track or off the track. It's about my guys, [Richard Childress Racing] and myself and that's it. Anything else that we bring upon ourselves is our own fault."

Harvick has stressed throughout this Chase he's more focused on his team. When he was asked about Johnson after Johnson's second-place run at Dover, Harvick said: "Don't care where Jimmie Johnson is, don't care where anyone else is. We are concerned about [Edwards, who was tied with Harvick for the points lead at time] and what we have to do to beat that particular car [and] controlling the things that we can control as a race team. I feel like if we do that we are going to maximize the potential that we have on that particular day and not try to add more to it than is really necessary.''

So far, that approach is working.

Hamlin says the change in Harvick's priorities is noticeable.

"I think that he realizes when the Chase starts you've got to be at your best,'' Hamlin said. "I think he knows that Dover [last year] was a distraction for him as well as it was for us even though he was trying to prove a point. It doesn't matter, you've got to let that stuff go. This competition is so hard and stiff now that you've got to worry about your own program and I think he's figuring that out.''

The change in mindset began just before the Chase started. Jeff Gordon said it was "fishy'' that Harvick's teammate, Paul Menard, spun toward the end at Richmond, the final race before the Chase began. Gordon led at the time with Harvick second. Harvick took advantage of the caution to win that race.

Asked about Gordon's comments, Harvick had the opportunity to fire back but did not. Instead, Harvick said there was no need for any type of retribution toward Gordon because Gordon was "voicing an opinion, and I have no problem with that. There's nothing that needs to be riled up or create a controversy. There's nothing there. He's just asking questions and that's what he should do.''

Harvick understands how challenging it is to win a title and he's not going to squander any chances.

"I look at this as really probably only the third real opportunity that we have had to win the championship,'' he said.

Gordon cited Harvick, Edwards and Johnson as the top three title contenders entering the Charlotte race.

If this is Harvick's year, he could give Childress his first Cup title since 1994.

Harvick's consistency has put him in that position. He's not finished worse than 12th in the Chase and has followed a pattern he's had much of this season where he's led very few laps per race. In two of his four wins this season, he led a combined three laps. Harvick has led 11 laps so far in the Chase.

That matters little to him compared to the five points that separate him and Edwards heading to Talladega.

"If you would have told me we would come out of Charlotte with only a five-point deficit going into the next five races, I would be really happy,'' Harvick said. "Knowing that four of the last five races are great race tracks for us, I'm really excited about that.''

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found at here.

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