Last weekend's race at Phoenix International Raceway proved to be one of the easiest calls of the entire 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season: everyone thought Kevin Harvick would win it, and that's exactly what did happen.
In doing do he not only put himself into the final four for this weekend's title-decider season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway - in many people's minds he also became the runaway favourite to secure the championship title in the winner-take-all Ford EcoBoost 400 race on Sunday.
But is it really that clear cut?
What made it so easy to predict he'd win at Phoenix was that he already had five wins there, including three out of the last four visits to Arizona. In stark contrast, he's never won at all at the 1.5-mile Homestead circuit. He's come second twice (2003, 2008) and third on two other occasions (2009 and 2010) but he's never made it to victory lane in 13 appearances here.
However he does have an 8.1 average finish at Homestead over the course of those 13 races, which is by far the best of any of the four championship contenders still in the running. He also tops the others when it comes to top fives there (five of them) and top tens (11 in total).
Although it's his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing after 12 seasons with Richard Childress Racing (where he took over from Dale Earnhardt Sr. following the seven times champion's tragic death at Daytona in 2001), he's clearly bedded in quickly with his new team and there should certainly be no complications arising from his move. Earlier in the season there have been frustrating glitches on pit lane, which goes some way to explaining why despite winning a commanding eight pole positions he's only chalked up four race wins in total so far, which puts him one behind Joey Logano.
Of course, Harvick doesn't actually have to win the race at Homestead to clinch the title - he just has to finish ahead of Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman. Providing he does that, the championship is his. And among the four finalists, Harvick has finished in front of the others a total of 11 times this season, compared to ten times for Logano and eight for Hamlin with a further six topped by Newman. To slice the data another way, Harvick has led an astounding 2,083 laps this year compared with 993 for Logano, 313 for Hamlin and just 41 for Newman.
"This is all about winning a championship," said Harvick. "That's what we all show up for. We all want to be competitive on a weekly basis, but at the end of the year, you want that championship trophy.
"I think I've been fortunate to have won all of the marquee races and won at different race tracks, Nationwide championships, Truck championships as an owner, so we've been able to achieve a lot of things. That Cup trophy is the one thing that's eluded us up until to this point.
"I definitely want to check that off of the list and be able to experience that for not only myself, but for all the guys that work on my car and haven't been able to win that championship either," he added. "It's been fun and hopefully we can reach that goal if not this year at some point".
Harvick is certainly the choice of four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who after being eliminated from the Chase last weekend at Phoenix tipped Harvick to clinch the title: "They've just been so strong lately, and it seems like they've gotten some of the bugs worked out in their team that they had early in the year, and I think if they do that next week, they're going to be really tough to beat."
Harvick certainly has enough experience of competing in the Chase, having made the cut on seven previous appearances, and he's finished third in the championship on three different occasions (in 2010, 2011 and 2013). None of the other contenders have the same experience of the play-offs that Harvick does, and with no previous champions still in contention it means that this could finally be the year that the 38-year-old from California makes it all the way.
"I think we've won a couple of the last nine races in the Chase in high‑pressure situations and cars are doing what they need to do, and that's what it's all about," he said this week. "You just go down there and approach the week just like we approached this week: Have fun with it, prepare your cars just like you've done all year, and feel like you've already been in that position as far as knowing how to prepare and how to mentally prepare yourself going into the week because we just came here and did it this week."
However he admitted that "you just never know" how it will go on any given day, and with the championship now decided by the result of a single race it mean that literally anything could happen on Sunday. "Obviously those guys are going to race as hard as they can, and you just have to go down there and do the same thing. It's definitely the best position that myself personally I've ever been in."
"These races, they change every week,” added Harvick's crew chief Rodney Childers said. “It's never ours to lose. We've got to go down there and execute and do all the right things just like Kevin just said ... I feel like, yes, we've had good speed compared to most guys this year, but on the other hand that doesn't mean anything going to Homestead."
What could get in the way this weekend? A return of the pit road gaffes could spell disaster; and Harvick's also found himself in the thick of a couple of recent high profile altercations, first with Matt Kenseth over an on-track clash between the pair at Martinsville and then the following week injecting himself into a pit lane confrontation between Gordon and Brad Keselowski. It was Harvick pushing Keselowski back toward Gordon that provided the final park to light the brawl that ensued.
Will that line him up as the target for any retaliation this weekend? It's unlikely. He's since made up with Kenseth - "I was kind of an ass to him probably," he admitted - and no one seems to be particularly angry with him about the Texas incident. Most of all, NASCAR will almost certainly deal very severely with anyone now outside the Chase inserting themselves into the championship by attempting to wreck a title contender, so the chances are that Kenseth, Gordon and Keselowski will all want to stay well clear of any chance of that happening this weekend.
A single misstep could yet ruin all of that positive outlook and break Harvick's heart for yet another season, but all things considered it sure seems that he's the man to beat this weekend.
"It's definitely the best position that myself personally I've ever been in," he agreed. "We're going to Homestead to race for a championship. I don't even care how we got here. I'm just so honoured to have the opportunity to race with these guys."
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