It's a high stakes, high tension weekend for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase field at Talladega Superspeedway, with Sunday's GEICO 500 set to decide which four drivers will be cut from contention. With Talladega already one of the most feared tracks on the calendar thanks to its potential for out-of-nowhere big wrecks that can hit anyone at anytime, its safe to say that this weekend's event is set to be one of the most nerve-shredding of the whole year.
But if you want an oasis of calm in the NASCAR paddock, then go visit the Stewart-Haas Racing garage occupied by Kevin Harvick. He won last time out at Charlotte Motor Speedway seven days ago, and that win guarantees him a spot in the next round of the Chase regardless of what happens this weekend. He could finish dead last and still be safely through, just like Penske's Joey Logano who won the previous week at Kansas.
"We'll just keep doing what we're doing," Harvick said on Friday. "I think there is a huge sigh of relief in a way [that we're through] but it's also that this is what you want to do and expect to do at this time of year.
But far from putting his feet up, as far as he's concerned Harvick's guaranteed Chase transfer just means that he can go out and play on Sunday afternoon without having to hold anything back because of the championship strategy.
"Obviously it takes a lot of pressure off by not having to worry about a strategy - you just go race," he said. "The mindset went to completely aggressive after the win last weekend ... It really doesn't matter what the outcome is [this weekend] unless you win.
"Those guys have worked hard on the cars to make them as good as they can no matter the scenario," he continued. "At the bare minimum, we owe it to them and the fans to race as hard as we can and take the same approach as we have all year – try to run well in practice, qualify well, lead laps and try to win a race. If it works out, it works out. That's the thing that comes out of last week. If it works out, fine and if doesn't, fine. Just race hard.
"It's still in my opinion very important to try and win just for the fact that you keep someone else from winning," Harvick added. "Obviously there are some people who are in a pretty vulnerable spot unless they win. Being aggressive, trying to lead laps, taking those points away, winning the race and not allow that automatic bid going forward is really the main goal."
With some big names in danger of being cut after this week's race - Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr., all of whom had come into the Chase cited as being among the favourites to win the 2014 Cup title - Harvick admitted that it would make his life a lot easier if they were to crash out of the play-offs.
"Anytime you see people in a vulnerable position where they could not advance to the next round, from a competitor's standpoint you want to do everything you can do to try and keep an upper hand," he said. "Whatever your best shot is for your team is what you want to see happens.
"You may have some feelings one way or the other toward teams and drivers and different people, and you want to see different scenarios play out and the excitement that goes with it, but in the end, you want the best scenario for your team to win a championship from pure greed standpoint, I guess you could say," he conceded.
"Really that's what we're here to do and that's win the championship and you want the best scenario for your team," he added. "It will be an interesting weekend regardless of how it all shakes out and who wins the race. It will be as interesting a lead-in to a weekend that we've had just because of the format, the scenarios, the cars on the outside looking in, how close everyone is, coming to Talladega. There are just so many variables in what could happen. For me, I'm just excited for the sport and looking forward to seeing how it all shakes out."
Having the luxury of enjoying the weekend's Chase situation almost from the point of view of an interested observer rather than being required to fight for his life for a transfer spot is testament to what Harvick's achieved in the last year, which saw him leave a long-time position at Richard Childress Racing to set up a brand new race team from scratch with his long-time friend Tony Stewart at SHR.
"With building a new team, having new people in new situations and a lot of things to learn, this format has allowed us to mature throughout the process of a year," Harvick said. "Hopefully you're getting to a refined point that you think is where you need to be to race for a championship. Last week was kind of the beginning of that and hopefully we can close out the last several weeks at the same level we had then."
Harvick should enjoy the thoroughly deserved moment of success for as long as he can, because on Monday it all changes again: the remaining eight drivers will all have their points levelled-out once more. No one gets to carry through any credit for past race wins into the next three-race sprint that takes us through Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix, before the final cut is made down to four remaining contenders in time for the winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16.
"We're doing as good a job in anything I've been involved in," said Harvick when asked if he felt he could make it all the way and clinch what would be his first Cup title after finishing in third place three times in the last four seasons. "The main thing is the speed in the race cars ... We've continued to have that and it becomes a matter of controlling all the things we can control.
"Martinsville can be as crazy as Talladega if things start getting out of hand," added Harvick about next weekend's race. "I feel like we should run well. It's just a matter of, like every other weekend, you've just got to put it all together."
But before that, there's Talladega to get through - preferably in one piece, even if it won't impact his Chase progression.
"I think here you just hope for the best and you try to put yourself in whatever spot you think is the safest," said Harvick, "There is really no good spot to race in as far as avoiding trouble, just for the fact that you know that anything can happen at the front of the pack or the back of the back or the middle of the pack.
"I think all of us who have been in this long enough have wrecked at some point in all those different spots. So, there is no safe spot. The best superspeedway race we've had all year we raced as hard as we could all day and were racing for the win here in the spring. So, that's the approach we're going to take.
"Whether that's right or wrong, it's like rolling the dice," he admitted. "You just hope that your number doesn't come up and you just do what you think it is the best thing to do and you just see how it all shakes out."