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NASCAR Kansas 2016 recap: Bullish Kevin Harvick again rises to occasion

As he’s done many times previously in NASCAR’s playoffs, Kevin Harvick produced a win Sunday when he absolutely needed one.

If there is one thing Kevin Harvick doesn't need more of, it's nicknames. Already carrying the monikers "Happy" and "The Closer," the former NASCAR champion has taken on a different epithet, "El Toro," since the Chase for the Sprint Cup began last month.

Just days after bluntly calling out his underperforming pit crew following the penultimate event of the regular season and with the 10-race Chase playoff soon starting, Harvick tweeted a video of a rampaging bull leaping out of an arena and into a grandstand. His accompanying message: "My mood for the next 11 weeks."

Harvick would later explain the social media post by saying that success in the knockout Chase format where a field of 16 drivers is reduced by four every three races requires a singular mindset where one doesn't concern themselves with making enemies. Because the only thing of consequence is doing whatever it takes to win, which automatically guarantees advancement to the next round.

While Harvick's attitude may be perceived as cutthroat, it has continually served him well since NASCAR implemented the elimination Chase format prior to the 2014 season. There is now no greater currency in the sport than the ability to win, and the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing car is fully aware of -- and embraces -- its significance.

Routinely, he's risen to the occasion to win races he either absolutely needed to stave off elimination, or to erase a sizable points hole.

Harvick did as much in Round 1 of this year's Chase when he followed a bad luck-induced 20th-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway with a victory the next week at New Hampshire. And the most recent showcase of Harvick's dogged resolve was on full display Sunday at Kansas Speedway.

Lined up second alongside leader Carl Edwards on a restart with 30 laps remaining, Harvick quickly got up to speed and drove aggressively into Turn 1 where he ever so slightly pushed Edwards up the track. He then slid in front of Edwards to stunt his momentum and stymie a re-pass down the backstretch.

It was a sequence that encapsulated Harvick's brilliance. With Edwards possessing the faster car over long green flag runs, Harvick understood his best chance stood to get ahead of Edwards and build up a gap that couldn't be overcome. To do that, required a good restart, something he had struggled with for much of the season.

But the underrated part of Harvick's game is that he is a student who meticulously studies ways to improve. During the regular season he had done just that. So when it came time to execute a flawless restart in a race where the stakes were high, it's not surprising that he thrived.

"We didn't have a car quite as close to [Edwards], and I was able to break that draft before I got to the middle of [Turns] 1 and 2 and get away from him," Harvick said. "That was pretty awesome.

"I just needed to go for and that is really the mindset we go into every race in the Chase was to go for, and we did."

Going for it is what Harvick systematically does whenever in a scenario demanding excellence.

Win and advance. Win and advance. On the surface a straightforward approach, yet in a sport with so many variables a driver can seemingly do only so much to dictate their playoff fate.

Nonetheless, Harvick is proving to be the exception. He credits crew chief Rodney Childers for emphasizing checkered flags over consistency, a concept foreign to Harvick before he joined SHR three years ago after 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing.

Childers constructs fast cars capable of running up front, Harvick takes it from there.

And when things go astray like a parts failure, a caution not working in your favor, or a competitor taking you out -- all of which have obstructed the No. 4 team in the Chase over the past three years -- there is no panic. Just a mentality that next week they will overcome the adversity in the only way they know how.

"We know we can perform in good and bad situations," Harvick said. "That's not something we really even talk about because we've already done all that."

After engine gremlins relegated him to a 38th-place finish in the second-round opener last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Harvick entered Kansas facing an eight-point deficit. But the focus within the No. 4 team wasn't on what happened at Charlotte, or the chance Harvick could go into next week's elimination race at Talladega Superspeedway squarely on the bubble, as foreboding a proposition as there is in NASCAR.

Instead it was single-mindedness on how they can win at Kansas. Nothing else.

"I have no idea where we were in the points or how many we were behind," Harvick said. "The only thing we talked about was trying to figure out how to win this race."

The never-say-die attitude is why Harvick is a very formidable out in the playoffs. He is unquestionably the driver everyone else recognizes they will have to go through if they want to win a championship.

"There's no doubt about it, [Harvick] steps up when the pressure's there," Austin Dillon said. "That team does a good job. They're able to reach in their back pocket and get speed when they want it. It's mind-blowing."

Said Joey Logano: "I don't know how, but when they're in must-win situations, they seem to find a little bit more speed, which is always interesting to me that they have a little bit left in the tank."

It's why Harvick could soon be adding another nickname by season's end: "Two-time champ."