Just a few days from the start of NASCAR's playoffs, Kevin Harvick a year ago set the tone for what was to come during the Chase for the Sprint Cup by calling out Joe Gibbs Racing, remarking he would "pound them into the ground."
The then-defending series champ ultimately fell short of fulfilling his declarative statement, narrowly losing the title to JGR's Kyle Busch. Nonetheless, Harvick's words accurately summarized the contentiousness NASCAR's knockout format breeds. With every position carrying the potential difference of maintaining championship eligibility or elimination, participants are compelled to do things they otherwise would never consider.
Yet, as the third edition of the Chase begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway (NBCSN, 2:45 p.m. ET), the trash talking and mind games ever omnipresent during the first two years have thus far been noticeably absent. Even Harvick, known for his penchant for playing the role of instigator, has taken a lower profile -- besides tweeting a video of a charging bull leaping into a grandstand with the caption: "My mood for the next 11 weeks."
This year, Harvick's focus is inward. On minimizing mistakes, a particular area of weakness for the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team.
"Our cars are capable of doing what they need to do," Harvick said Thursday at Chase Media Day in the Southside of Chicago. "I think our team is capable of doing what we need to do. There's no reason to worry about anything else."
So why, with the stakes significantly raised, is there a less theatrical buildup to the Chase opener than prior years? Conventional wisdom suggests drivers understand ultimately all the bombastic words mean nothing when cars take to the track. Speed and execution over the 10-race playoff pressure cooker will decide who wins and loses. And little to nothing said beforehand carries much, if any, impact.
Because for all of his proclamations about beating JGR in 2015, it was Harvick who gaffed when in the first Chase race he abruptly cut down in front of Jimmie Johnson on a restart puncturing a tire that sent him crashing into the wall.
Who won that afternoon at Chicagoland? JGR's Denny Hamlin. Just as Hamlin's teammate Matt Kenseth prevailed the following week when Harvick ran out of fuel while leading with three laps remaining at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Despite the changing tone, the major players remain the same as a year ago.
Harvick is again formidable, having led the regular season in top-five finishes, top-10s and average finish; as is the entire Toyota lineup consisting of Busch, Hamlin, Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr., who combined to win half of the 26 races in 2016 and led over half the laps.
Also lurking is Team Penske's Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, who don't have the same performance in their Fords but plenty of high-level consistency, which could be enough to get both to the championship round Nov. 20 at Miami-Homestead Speedway.
"It's not going to be easy, that's for sure," Truex said. "This Chase is tough. It's demanding. If we get hit with some bad luck, it could be a real challenge. You get put in a must-win situation or something like that, you need to be able to step it up."
As tends to happen due to the Chase's penchant for volatility where the favorites often fall by the wayside due to fluky circumstances -- Kenseth intentionally crashing Logano, Keselowski not advancing to the final round due to repeated parts failures at Martinsville Speedway -- the likelihood exists for someone unexpected to surprise.
That was how Ryan Newman in 2014 and Jeff Gordon last year each made it to South Florida with shots at the championship.
"It's not always the fastest car that's there at Homestead racing for a championship in this new format," Kenseth said. "Things change and move very quickly, but you've still got to turn them into finishes every week. Anybody can have trouble or not get races put together."
Most frequently pegged as this year's potential dark horse is Kyle Larson, with the third-year driver having recorded a win, a second and a third in the final three regular season races. Factor in how strong he is on intermediate speedways, which comprise half the Chase tracks, and many within the garage think he could be the NASCAR equivalent of a bracket buster.
"(Larson) can definitely punch out the results," Busch said. "(Chip Ganassi Racing) have shown that the last few weeks of having good cars, having good speed and being right there in the running for the final finish."
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES 400 STARTING LINEUP
|6||Martin Truex, Jr.||Toyota|
|23||Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.||Ford|