The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY JENNA FRYER As­so­ci­ated Press

The mood in the desert is tense headed into the fi­nal elim­i­na­tion race be­fore NASCAR’s cham­pi­onship, a ti­tle Kevin Har­vick is de­ter­mined to win.

The 2014 cham­pion is on a mis­sion to lead his Ste­wart-Haas Rac­ing team into the ti­tle race, prove they hon­estly are the best group in the garage and that a wave of ad­ver­sity can­not un­ravel their suc­cess. NASCAR said the No. 4 team cheated in last week­end’s vic­tory at Texas by build­ing their own spoiler and pass­ing it off as one sup­plied by the re­quired ven­dor. The pun­ish­ment was se­vere and put Har­vick in dan­ger of not qual­i­fy­ing for the cham­pi­onship.

But the road to the fi­nal four goes through ISM Race­way out­side of Phoenix. It’s a track where Har­vick has won nine times pre­vi­ously, in­clud­ing this year – a week after a dif­fer­ent No. 4 Ford was found to be il­le­gal fol­low­ing a vic­tory. This track was crit­i­cal in Har­vick’s run to his first ti­tle four years ago when he had to win, and did, at Phoenix to ad­vance to the cham­pi­onship round.

A win isn’t re­quired Sun­day, and Har­vick needs only to avoid any on-track is­sues to se­cure his ticket at Homestead­Mi­ami Speed­way.

Only a quiet Sun­day drive is not Har­vick’s style.

He ar­rived in Phoenix with­out his crew chief and car chief, both sus­pended for the fi­nal two races of the sea­son. The berth he’d earned into the fi­nal four by win­ning last week at Texas had been stripped away as pun­ish­ment by NASCAR. His team has been branded a cheat.

The sit­u­a­tion is less than ideal, and Har­vick is dis­in­ter­ested in dis­cussing the penalty or the plight of his race team. He’s in­stead let­ting his per­for­mance speak for it­self.

He went out and won the pole. Then he was fastest in both of Satur­day’s prac­tices.

It’s quite clear Har­vick came to Ari­zona with ev­ery in­ten­tion of rolling over the com­pe­ti­tion on his way to Homestead. The penalty is old news to him and he’s not look­ing back.

“I show up and do the best that I can,” Har­vick said. “The best thing that shows up are re­sults on the race track. I drive and try to do the best that I can and we go from there.”

He’s one of seven driv­ers rac­ing Sun­day for three re­main­ing spots in the fi­nale. Only Joey Logano is locked in – and it is no co­in­ci­dence he’s the most re­laxed play­off driver right now – and all three of Har­vick’s team­mates are vy­ing for slots. The penalty is­sued Wed­nes­day against Har­vick not only cost him his au­to­matic berth to Homestead but the points de­duc­tion left him only three points above the cut­line.

Lurk­ing right be­hind him is team­mate Kurt Busch, who rec­og­nized the op­por­tu­nity Har­vick’s penalty opened for the last driver to win the Cup ti­tle in a Ford.

“This week with the penalty, it’s like we won two stages with­out even fir­ing up the en­gine on our car,” said Busch, cham­pion in 2004 in the first year of NASCAR’s play­off sys­tem. “Now we’re equal and the job now is to get stage one, stage two and to see how things pan out for the end of the race.”

While Har­vick was lay­ing the ground­work for a rout on Sun­day, his com­pe­ti­tion was pre­par­ing for an in­tense push for those fi­nal three berths. Among the driv­ers who haven’t qual­i­fied for Homestead are Kyle Busch and reign­ing se­ries cham­pion Martin Truex Jr. Kyle Busch, Truex and Har­vick were NASCAR’s so-called Big Three this year as they dom­i­nated the reg­u­lar sea­son yet none are guar­an­teed to race for the ti­tle.

So it left Logano as the only re­laxed driver.

“When the play­offs started, I kind of felt like we were an un­der­dog,” Logano said. “The last six or seven weeks we’ve led a lot more laps, we’ve won a lot of stages, won a race, was fast at Kansas, was fast at Texas and you know what? I think we’re the fa­vorite now to win.”

Logano bumped Truex out of his way in the fi­nal turn at Martinsville two weeks ago to win the race and earn the au­to­matic berth. Lock­ing in al­lowed Logano to take a sin­gu­lar fo­cus on Homestead.

“We’re fo­cused in on one race for the last two weeks,” Logano said, “and other teams re­ally have to fo­cus in on get­ting there first.”


Kevin Har­vick (4) and Kyle Busch run prac­tice laps Satur­day in prepa­ra­tion for Sun­day’s race in Avon­dale, Ariz., where Har­vick has won nine times pre­vi­ously, in­clud­ing this year.


Kevin Har­vick suf­fered a blow to his ti­tle hopes this week when NASCAR hit him with a rules vi­o­la­tion.

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