Smoke from Matt Kenseth's victory burnout hangs in the air behind Kevin Harvick as Harvick leaves the pit area after the NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H., Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015. Harvick, who was in the le
Cheryl Senter
October 01, 2015

With a NASCAR championship defense at stake, Kevin Harvick tried to spin Dover as just another race. He even compared the pressure ahead to a walk in the park.

Win at Dover and the back-to-back bid is alive. Fall short, and Harvick likely could be relegated to a spoiler role for the rest of NASCAR's playoffs.

Harvick has two wins and a series-best 18 top fives, but is mired at 15th in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has gone from boom to bust in the Chase, finishing 42nd in the Chase opener at Chicagoland and 21st last week at New Hampshire.

Ahead is the concrete mile track at Dover where Harvick is 0 for 29.

''I like these types of situations,'' Harvick said Thursday. ''I think they're different and fun and it's all in the approach and how you react to them.''

Harvick has had the No. 4 Chevy up against the wall before - he was eighth out of eight teams and had to win last season at Phoenix International Raceway to advance into the championship finale. He won the race, then won it all the next week when his second straight checkered flag gave him the highest finish among four championship drivers to earn the crown.

Under NASCAR's playoff format, the bottom four drivers in the Chase field are eliminated after Dover. He'll earn an automatic berth into the championship round with a victory. Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth have secured the first two spots.

It was only three weeks ago when a confident Harvick said of the JGR drivers, ''We're going to pound them into the ground.''

So far Harvick has taken a beating on the track, and dished one out in the motorhome. Harvick was unwilling on Thursday to discuss if he's talked with Jimmie Johnson in the wake of their post-race skirmish at Chicagoland.

Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, Harvick and Clint Bowyer are the final four drivers on the brink of elimination. They would advance with a victory, but Johnson stands at the No. 1 contender in their way at Dover, where he has a track-record 10 victories.

Harvick was runner-up to Johnson in May in the first Dover race. Good, though probably not good enough on Sunday.

''I know the Gibbs guys are fast, but watching practice, he's really embarrassing the (heck) out of everybody,'' Chase driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday. ''It's going to be a shame more than anything because he's got the potential to win the whole thing.''

The surprise isn't that Harvick is in this precarious position because poor finishes can happen to any driver. The surprise is that a championship team, with an ace crew chief in Rodney Childers, has watched gambles on tire and fuel strategy backfire in each race.

At Chicagoland, Johnson connected with Harvick and created a tire rub on the SHR Chevy. The call was made for Harvick to stay out instead of making a pit stop for tires and falling a lap down. Harvick spun and hit the wall, ending his race and sparking a confrontation with Johnson.

Harvick thought he had enough fuel to last all 300 miles at New Hampshire, only to lose the lead with three laps left when the Chevy was dry and tumbled to 21st. Childers said Sunday that data showed Harvick had enough fuel and it should have been a ''non-issue.''

''It looks like for some reason it must not have got full on our last pit stop of the race or the fuel cell bladder is coming apart,'' he said. ''If anything showed we were taking a chance, we would have pitted.''

Harvick defended both calls.

On tires: ''The tire rub is hard to see and I think with the smoke going away, you obviously didn't know it was as bad as it was.''

On fuel: ''It shouldn't have even been close with the pace that we had to run and the mileage that we had gathered from everything that we had in the pit box. I don't think anybody views last week as a risk, just for the fact that the mileage wasn't even close.''

Harvick would love to repeat, not just for himself, but for his friend and team owner Tony Stewart. Stewart announced this week he will retire from Sprint Cup racing after the 2016 season. Harvick was one of the people Stewart had confided in about his decision to call it quits.

''I haven't really known how to react to it, just for the fact that it's real now,'' he said.

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AP Motor Sports Writer Jenna Fryer contributed to this report.

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