All eyes on Harvick as 2 Chase spots up for grabs in Phoenix

Kevin Harvick, who hails from Bakersfield, Calif., is a tough man to beat on the mile oval in Phoenix — the place he considers his home track.

He's also been difficult to keep out of Victory Lane when he needs a win to advance in the Chase, which is once again the case in the penultimate round of this year's pursuit of the Sprint Cup.

Last year, Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy team advanced to the finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway with a runner-up finish behind Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in a rain-shortened race.

It was his only loss at Phoenix since 2013. It's a remarkable record and Harvick could be forgiven if he doesn't add another trophy on Sunday. But even second place won't do this time around, because Harvick is too far back in the points after a poor performance in the Round of 8's first race at the Martinsville Speedway.

Known for biding his time before charging to the front in NASCAR's version of the rope-a-dope, Harvick at least doesn't have to worry much about rain relegating him to another second place. Last year's cancellation of the last 93 scheduled laps is not likely to happen. It was the first occasion where rain had shortened a race in the desert since NASCAR's premier series first raced at Phoenix in 1988.

There was some moaning about the unfairness of calling such a crucial race early last year that sent NASCAR's most popular driver into championship contention.

Likewise, NASCAR was questioned by social media about the call to end the Texas race last weekend won by Carl Edwards, who along with Jimmie Johnson is locked in for Homestead after their wins. But why do things any differently than the usual way of producing a winner? The same practical reasons for not staying at a track for an unpredictably extended period of time always rule.

Two drivers wouldn't be unhappy with a runner-up finish at Phoenix. Joey Logano and Kyle Busch can guarantee themselves a place among the final four Sprint Cup candidates with second place if they lead laps. Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch must have a victory to guarantee a shot at the title in Florida.

Ford and Team Penske seem to have finally found some speed, which bodes well for Logano. JGR driver Busch, meanwhile, appears to be imitating last year's strategy of points racing in order to get a shot at winning in Homestead. Team owner Joe Gibbs, meanwhile, has three bullets left including Kenseth and Hamlin, and he hopes to get two of his Toyotas into the final running for the first time.

Harvick is uncomfortably familiar with the come-from-behind role he finds himself in yet again. Four times in the last three years he has been on the verge of Chase elimination before posting a victory. Two of this season's four victories have come during the Chase when he needed them the most. It's a fix in more ways than one.

“When you get in these situations, it's fun to be able to succeed,” Harvick said following his victory in New Hampshire in September. “It's kind of like an addiction. You just love the rush of being able to be behind and be able to perform and make that happen. It's something that is very gratifying.”

If Harvick has a secret at Phoenix, it's being able to adjust to different track positions and to competitors who have raised their game. Any advantage his SHR team might bring to Phoenix can disappear overnight, he said.

“That's the hardest thing about having success. You have to have an open mind to try new things to keep moving forward,” Harvick said. “If you don't have an open mind or are not willing to try a fresh approach, then it will get stagnant. You're going to become stale and get left behind.”

Before his current stretch of six wins in his last eight Sprint Cup starts at Phoenix, Harvick won five times in the Camping World Truck Series. He also has a Xfinity Series victory on the desert mile. His over-all Sprint Cup statistics are off the chart. He has led 1,484 laps at Phoenix – 18 percent of the total he has run – and has posted 757 fastest laps.

He swept both races in 2006, but Harvick really came on strong once the track was repaved and the backstretch was somewhat straightened in 2011.

Although he has only one pole, Harvick prefers being close to the front. There's always a dilemma about when to pit for tires and give up track position.

“Phoenix is a really flat racetrack where you want to have the freshest tires possible, but track position is really important,” he said. “A lot of what happens at Phoenix depends on the weather and how hot it is – how much fall-off and how you have to manage track position throughout the day. The cooler the day is, the more you have to manage your track position. The hotter the day, the more you have to manage the fall-off. Better-handling cars will have a little easier time of getting through the field.”

It remains to be seen how a new rule announced by NASCAR for Phoenix will affect Harvick's SHR team as well as the other Chase contenders. In the eternal pursuit of trying to keep “skewed” cars in check, the sanctioning body circulated a new tech bulletin about how the truck trailing arms in the rear suspension are mounted to their brackets. It's a rule that will be carried over to 2017. The object of teams “skewing” their cars is to gain an advantage in the corners by picking up more aerodynamic sideforce.

The new rule will present at least one new challenge for Harvick and his crew. The other challenge as always on a relatively short track will be contact from other drivers. Harvick has always seemed to know when to bang fenders and when to avoid contact that could cut a tire or possibly put his car into the wall. He won in the spring by banging into Edwards on the last lap coming to the checkered flag.

Not surprisingly, Harvick believes the Phoenix track belongs to him until someone can prove otherwise. In the last four years, only the rain gods have beaten him.