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Holy Harvick!

I'm starting to have a new found appreciation for last year’s Sprint Cup champion like I haven't had for any driver since I was a kid. This guy is one the coolest of competitors under pressure I've ever seen and his win in desperate circumstances Sunday at Dover proved once again that he really might be in his own class.

Now I don't want to take away anything greats of the past have done. I saw Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon do great things in NASCAR. I saw Jimmie Johnson win an incredible five championships in a row, but Kevin Harvick is in a new class in this 10-race Chase era where drivers get eliminated from championship contention every three races.

Last year, Harvick had to win at Phoenix to advance to the Championship race at Homestead and he did it in dominant fashion. And then he went on to win at Homestead and win his first Sprint Cup. This season, in another elimination situation -- do or die -- at a Dover layout he'd never won at before in 29 starts, he went on to lead 355 of the 400 laps en route to the win.

All other past NASCAR Championship formats never had that type of pressure built in so we never had to see that part of the athlete -- yes, the drivers are athletes -- come out in the same way we've seen John Elway, Joe Montana or Madison Bumgarner always rise to the occasion when their team needed them most in crunch situations.

I think Harvick always had that in his DNA. He's a fighter. He never backs down from anyone and he never backs down from any challenge. But he's never had this type of opportunity to show what he's really made of during his career because the situation was never in place to allow him to show off that deep inner strength. Because of NASCAR's ability to quickly make changes for the better and continually tweak its format, we now get to find out what drivers have these special set of skills we admire so much in all other athletes.

While Harvick was being amazing, at the same time we saw Johnson be eliminated from the Chase after a 42nd-place finish. It's a bizarre twist in the Chase, not only because Johnson is a six-time champion and owns almost every track record at Dover, but also because in the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland, Johnson had bumped Harvick into the wall putting Harvick in 42nd-place and in the desperate position he was in at Dover. Karma can be cruel.

Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte kicks off the second leg of the Chase called the “Contender Round” where 12 drivers all start with the same amount of points. Win any of the next three races between Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega and it's an automatic ticket into the “Eliminator Round.”

This will be the eighth race this season held on a 1.5-mile track and second of five we'll see during the Chase. A Chevrolet won the first four with Johnson taking three wins and Harvick getting the other. But things started to shift for Chevrolet and Toyota at the Charlotte in May when Denny Hamlin won the All-Star Race and then Carl Edwards won the Coca-Cola 600 the following week. Kyle Busch would win at Kentucky's 1.5-mile layout in July and Hamlin would win at Chicagoland to kick off the Chase.

That's four straight Joe Gibbs Racing wins (All-Star race was non-points event) on 1.5s and they've won 10 of the past 14 races overall coming into this week. Needless to say, they are on a roll and should be considered the favorites to win again this week -- all four of them almost equally as good.

Joey Logano has been the top Ford entry and while he's never won at Charlotte over his young career (13 starts), he does lead all active drivers with a 10.2 average finish. He finished 13th there in May and was fourth in this race last fall.

You can also expect Harvick to give the Gibbs cars a strong run as well. He's a three-time winner at Charlotte including the Chase race last season. He's finished ninth or better at Charlotte in nine of his past 10 starts.

The driver I'd really like to see step up and win a race is Jeff Gordon. I've been waiting all year for it, as have his entire base of fans wanting to see the No. 24 in victory land one more time before he calls it quits at seasons end. This is the track where he really got discovered, or stolen from car owner Bill Davis. Former Charlotte President Humpy Wheeler noticed from his office a car that was attacking turns three and four better than he had seen before. It was Gordon in a Busch series practice. Rick Hendrick noticed too, signed him, and soon a legend was born. Gordon has five wins at Charlotte with the last coming in 2007.

Gordon is currently 20/1 at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook to win the Sprint Cup and after watching Ryan Newman make the Championship race last season without a win on the year, anything is possible.

That certainly would be a nice way to go out. Whether he gets his fifth Sprint Cup title or not -- he never won the title when called “Sprint Cup” -- I'd just like to see his name added to a story line down the stretch which is already building up quite nicely thanks to Harvick's exploits last week.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #18 Kyle Busch (7/1)
2) #22 Joey Logano (7/1)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (9/1)
4) #4 Kevin Harvick (6/1)
5) #20 Matt Kenseth (7/1)

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