TALLADEGA, Ala. — Guaranteed of a spot in the third round of NASCAR's playoffs, Kevin Harvick has no reason to race hard Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.
If it was up to him, he wouldn't race at all.
Four of NASCAR's top drivers will see their title hopes come to an end at Talladega, where the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field will be cut from 12 to eight. Among those in danger of becoming a title-race spectator are defending champion Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth — Johnson's closest competition last season — Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 2012 champion Brad Keselowski.
With so much on the line for others and nothing for Harvick to gain, he would really like to watch it all unfold.
"I'd park it because it'll be one hell of a race to watch," Harvick joked about his Talladega strategy. "It's going to be fun to watch. It's going to be crazy, offensive racing."
Harvick's win last Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway earned him an automatic berth into the third round of the Chase. It was a welcome relief to Harvick, who likes NASCAR's new elimination format but complained it's created many a sleepless night.
"It makes me want to puke every week," Harvick said. "My wife can tell you, it's like you go home and all you do, you lay up at night and you think about, 'OK, what do I have to do next week? OK, what do we need to do? Who do I need to talk to?' It consumes everything that you do."
Harvick is having one of those rare dream seasons, his first with Stewart-Haas Racing.
He and crew chief Rodney Childers showed from their first time on the track together that they had fast No. 4 Chevrolets and would be a force in the championship race. But for all the laps led — Harvick's career-best 1,815 lead the Sprint Cup Series — and those eight poles, he had very little to show for his efforts.
The win at Charlotte was just his third of the season as Harvick was plagued by mechanical problems, pit issues and plain old bad luck. Right before the Chase began, SHR gave Harvick the pit crew of team co-owner Tony Stewart — the one that won the 2011 championship — in an effort to strengthen Harvick's chances.
Harvick, who has never won a Cup title, insisted he never fretted about all the fluke things that kept him out of Victory Lane and he's just been riding along waiting for some new karma.
"We have a fast car and we can win every race," Harvick said. "(We felt) we'll just keep working on everything and try to get it all worked out, and hopefully, by the end of the year you have everything worked out and you can race for a championship and be in position to race for that championship at Homestead. When you have fast cars, everything else takes care of itself eventually. Bad luck can't haunt you forever."
A large amount of credit for the success of the No. 4 team goes to Childers, who left Michael Waltrip Racing last year to be paired with Harvick at SHR. Although he admitted to munching on anti-heartburn tablets throughout the race at Charlotte, Childers always seems calm.
It's an impressive character trait for a crew chief making his first appearance in the Chase, although Childers admitted he'd watched Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus and others from afar. To alleviate stress, Childers puts time in at the shop to ensure he's brought the best car possible to every race.
"If you can't unload off the truck and be the fastest car, you're going to struggle all weekend, and that's our thought process every single week," he said.
The strong relationship between crew chief and driver has helped immensely, even though Childers and Harvick worked for the first time together last December. Harvick has taken pride in stepping into a leadership role at SHR, and he makes a point of checking with Childers to make sure the team does not dwell on problems.
"He is the leader," Childers said. "There's one thing I get almost every Sunday night or Saturday night, and it's a text message that says, 'The problems that we have are a lot better than the problems we don't have.' As soon as I get that message or as soon as he says that, it flips a switch, I move to the next week, all the guys move to the next week and we go try to build the fastest car we can and move on. He's the ringleader of that and does a really good job."