Harvick biding his time until he makes his move for the title

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But Kevin Harvick lurks nearby, a stealthy threat. Johnson leads him by 77 points with five races to go. Harvick knows where he's going to try to make his move and it's one race away, at Talladega. He also knows he's got to keep Johnson and Hamlin in sight with a good points day at Martinsville. Harvick would like to win, but he's not going to take any risks to do it.

"Here is my motto through the whole thing [Chase]," Harvick explained. "You don't have to win it in one week, but you can lose it in one. That has been the theory as we've gone about week-after-week. I look at Loudon as the ultimate example of what we've done so far. Consistency has been our strong point, so there is no reason not to lean on that.

"If that is not good enough in the end, it's not good enough. But those are the things that we lean on to be strong in points and get the good finishes and just wear 'em down. That is really what our strong point is."

Harvick finished fifth in the Chase's opening race at New Hampshire. Like many other drivers, he faced the decision to try to stretch his gas to the end or pit. Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer stayed out and won when Tony Stewart ran out of gas two laps from the checkered flag. Harvick has no regrets.

"When you look at Loudon, those guys all stayed out," Harvick said. "I think half of them ran out of gas. Clint made it and won the race, but the risk versus reward--when they said we might be able to make it, I said I'm not even going to save you any gas because we are gong to pit. There's no reason to get behind.

"It is harder to make up points week in and week out than it is to lose. So, you just have to go out and protect yourself the best you can and race as hard as you can and get the best finish you can."

Harvick had his worst finish of the season, a 35th at Martinsville in late March, but he had a fast Chevrolet. Harvick started on the pole and led 57 laps early before brake failure sent him to the garage for 100 laps. After returning, the No. 29 team used the final 350 laps as a test session.

The half-mile paperclip-shaped track has never been particularly good for Harvick, who doesn't have a top-5 in 18 starts. He does have seven top-10s and he led 104 laps in finishing eighth in October 2004. But you can throw all those stats out. Harvick has never driven better than in 2010, the RCR cars are equal or better than any in Cup, and the March race-and-test positions him for a top-5 run Sunday.

"I think we've run well there," Harvick said. "We ran well at the first race and had some mechanical issues. We just have to keep doing what we've been doing. I think [Jeff] Burton had the fastest car there last time and wound up getting a flat tire, so we will look at those notes and go there and see what happens."

Talladega is the restrictor-plate race in the Chase, unpredictable and unforgiving if you get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's a scenario every driver has to worry about. Harvick views it as an opportunity to jump up in the Chase. He won at Talladega in the spring and at Daytona in July.

"You're kind of at the mercy of a lot of things that can happen around you," Harvick said. "So, I think after you get done with Talladega, you'll kind of know where you stand as far as what you need to do over the last few weeks. I think the last few weeks are really good race tracks for us and Talladega is a good race track for us as well. They can all flip you upside down and turn things around and have things turn at any given week, but it seems Talladega is the biggest wild card as far as what's going to happen and who is going to get caught in a wreck and who isn't.

"I think everybody is waiting for that particular race to see where you stack up from there. I'll take the odds. If it all finished at Talladega and we were behind, I'll take the odds. We've been really good on those [restrictor-plate] race tracks this year. I feel like we've had good strategies and done the things that we have needed to do and had fast cars. So really in the end, fast cars are what it takes to even have a shot at winning a race."

Harvick has a plan: Stay close at Martinsville, gain at Talladega and make a run in the three post-Talladega races -- Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami -- for the championship. He's capable of executing it well. Harvick should be within striking range going into Homestead-Miami and that's his objective.

"You've just got to go out and keep doing the things that you're doing and play your own game and see where it all falls at the end," Harvick said.