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Kevin Harvick unfazed by slow Chase start

For the second consecutive year, Harvick heads to the second playoff race in a points hole.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Even though no words were spoken, Kevin Harvick's frustration was palpable as he walked purposely away from pit road where he had just climbed out of his No. 4 car after the conclusion of Sunday's race at Chicagoland Speedway. As a handful of reporters trailed and attempted to ask questions, Harvick remained silent just sipping from a water bottle before chucking it toward a fence.

So it goes again for Harvick, who two years in a row has opened NASCAR's playoffs with a disappointing result not indicative of the championship contender he is. Last year, contact with Jimmie Johnson cut Harvick's left-rear tire leading to a crash. He finished 42nd and later shoved Johnson in the driver's motorhome lot.

This year, an untimely yellow flag that came in the middle of what should have been a routine pit stop trapped Harvick a lap down. Although crew chief Rodney Childers could've attempted to use pit strategy to get his driver back on the lead lap, he elected otherwise, and Harvick could muster only a 20th-place finish.

If all this carries a familiar ring, it's because it is. Championships cannot be won in the first week of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, only lost. And Harvick and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team once again nearly coughed up their chance at Chicagoland.

All is not lost, however. The positive is Harvick's current predicament is nowhere close to the direness he faced last year at this time, where pointing his way to Round 2 was completely off the table. Then, he entered New Hampshire Motor Speedway (the site of Sunday's Bad Boy Off Road 300) needing a victory only to run out of fuel while leading with three laps to go. That misstep set up a situation a week later where anything less than a victory at Dover International Speedway and the 2014 Sprint Cup champion's hopes of repeating would vanish.

Ultimately, Harvick prevailed at Dover with a commanding performance that saw him lead 355 of a possible 400 laps. He went on to finish runner-up to Kyle Busch in the championship.

Now, Harvick's tied with Austin Dillon for the 13th, one spot behind Tony Stewart for the final transfer position. There is a manageable scenario where if Harvick were to post consecutive top-10 finishes the next two weeks, he would in all likelihood advance with little hassle, a very realistic possibility considering just how strong the No. 4 car has been throughout the season.

"We were a little too ramped up, or at least I was, to start the Chase last year," Harvick said in a SHR release Wednesday. "There's definitely a strategy to how you approach situations and how you approach the end. I think, having dealt with that in the past, that it's a good thing for us."

Further working to Harvick's advantage is his mental toughness. Over the course of 10 races, things will invariably occur, placing a driver and team on the brink. Those who can overcome adversity best will continue on. Those who can't, well, there's always next year.

And through just one race into the third edition of the knockout format, Harvick owns a series-best three victories in races where he absolutely needed to emerge victorious. So if New Hampshire also becomes a replay of 2015, it would just transform Dover into a "win or else" situation -- again.

"The pressure situations have been very good for us," Harvick said. "As you look at the past two years -- winning the championship and finishing second and getting to [the championship round] twice -- it kind of shows the grit and backbone of our team and how well they've dealt with those situations. That experience definitely pays dividends every year when you go in."

If you didn't know better, you almost get the sense Harvick feels he has the competition right where he wants them.