AP Sports Writer
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Go ahead, just try and wrestle the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship away from Kevin Harvick.
No driver can put up a fight quite like the champ.
A former high school wrestler, Harvick has had a season’s worth of dust ups just in the nine-race Chase alone. He’s sparred with Jimmie Johnson and absorbed the slings from critics who accused him of holding up a race to preserve his playoff spot.
Yet Harvick is still standing, back at Homestead-Miami and primed to join an elite group of drivers who have won back-to-back championships.
Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt, Johnson, too. Those are just some of the greats who won consecutive titles.
Harvick has tried to diffuse talk that he’s the heavy favorite Sunday to hold off Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch at the same track where he clinched his 2014 crown.
His rivals aren’t buying it.
“He’s the favorite,” Gordon said. “We’re the sentimentals.”
Harvick proved his first-season success at Stewart-Haas Racing was no fluke, following up with three wins and a whopping 12 runner-up finishes this year. He survived two rough outings as the Chase began and finished third and second in his last two races.
“Coming into this week and dealing with the second opportunity has not been near as hard or near as stressful as it was last year,” Harvick said. “Having that playbook of what we did last year and knowing that you can tweak on that a little bit and knowing how to manage the week is something that you can’t put a price on that because you’ve been there, done that, and you have to try to get better each time.”
Tony Stewart has marveled at the season Harvick has put together at SHR and the determination that team has shown through three rounds of the elimination-format Chase.
“All four drivers are capable of winning this, but having a driver that’s been through it the previous year and knows how to handle it and knows what to expect, I mean, that’s a big advantage going into a week like this,” he said.
Harvick has long cited his wrestling experience for shaping him into the tenacious competitor he’s become in NASCAR. After starting out as an 86-pound freshman, Harvick quit his senior year — the last time he says he gave up any anything, and the reason he refused to count out his Chase chances after a bleak start.
Harvick was knocked out of the Chase opener at Chicagoland when he connected with Johnson and blew a tire. He later got into an altercation with Johnson in the motorhome lot and shoved the Hendrick Motorsports driver. The next week at New Hampshire, his team firmly believing he could reach the finish line, he ran out of gas and was seemingly out of contention.
Needing a win at Dover to advance to the next round, he led 355 laps at a track where he had never won and parked the No. 4 Chevrolet in victory lane.
Typical Harvick, mastering his Game 7 races like no other in the series.
Drama seems to follow him as much as the smoke that blows off the track during his victory burnouts.
At Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Jr. tried to stave off elimination with a win, but when Harvick refused to cede position as his engine failed, he triggered a race-ending accident that bounced NASCAR’s most popular driver from the playoffs.
Drivers were in an uproar. Harvick said he did what he had to do and NASCAR found no proof that he deliberately caused the crash to protect his position.
Harvick hasn’t noticed any hint of payback in the ensuing races.
“I don’t think anybody has done anything different,” he said. “I haven’t raced anybody different, and I think it’s just another race as far as that stuff goes.”
This Sunday is far from another race.
“When I sat at his house and we met and talked about doing this, that’s what we both said is, we wanted to be in a position where we could race for a championship, and not only for one year but do it for multiple years and keep things going,” crew chief Rodney Childers said.
All Harvick has to do is finish ahead of his three competitors and he’ll make history.
A year ago, he seized his opportunity with a relentless dash through the field, picking off car after car to win the race and claim his first championship.
Stewart threw his arms around Harvick and the close friends and teammates held each other tight for several moments. It was Stewart who in 2012 convinced Harvick that if he left RCR when his contract expired at the end of 2013, he could help Harvick win his first title.
Now, they’re poised to win it again.