|Who will step up at Charlotte this week?|
I'm starting to have a new found appreciation for last year’s Sprint Cup champion like I haven't had for any driver since I was a kid. This guy is one the coolest of competitors under pressure I've ever seen and his win in desperate circumstances Sunday at Dover proved once again that he really might be in his own class.
Now I don't want to take away anything greats of the past have done. I saw Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon do great things in NASCAR. I saw Jimmie Johnson win an incredible five championships in a row, but Kevin Harvick is in a new class in this 10-race Chase era where drivers get eliminated from championship contention every three races.
Last year, Harvick had to win at Phoenix to advance to the Championship race at Homestead and he did it in dominant fashion. And then he went on to win at Homestead and win his first Sprint Cup. This season, in another elimination situation -- do or die -- at a Dover layout he'd never won at before in 29 starts, he went on to lead 355 of the 400 laps en route to the win.
All other past NASCAR Championship formats never had that type of pressure built in so we never had to see that part of the athlete -- yes, the drivers are athletes -- come out in the same way we've seen John Elway, Joe Montana or Madison Bumgarner always rise to the occasion when their team needed them most in crunch situations.
I think Harvick always had that in his DNA. He's a fighter. He never backs down from anyone and he never backs down from any challenge. But he's never had this type of opportunity to show what he's really made of during his career because the situation was never in place to allow him to show off that deep inner strength. Because of NASCAR's ability to quickly make changes for the better and continually tweak its format, we now get to find out what drivers have these special set of skills we admire so much in all other athletes.
While Harvick was being amazing, at the same time we saw Johnson be eliminated from the Chase after a 42nd-place finish. It's a bizarre twist in the Chase, not only because Johnson is a six-time champion and owns almost every track record at Dover, but also because in the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland, Johnson had bumped Harvick into the wall putting Harvick in 42nd-place and in the desperate position he was in at Dover. Karma can be cruel.
Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte kicks off the second leg of the Chase called the “Contender Round” where 12 drivers all start with the same amount of points. Win any of the next three races between Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega and it's an automatic ticket into the “Eliminator Round.”