Kevin Harvick, NASCAR's best counter-puncher, has a talent for turning frustration into motivation.
A week after banging fenders with Martin Truex Jr. on his way to the bottom of the Chase pile, Harvick joined the Toyota driver as the second to advance to the Round of 12 by winning on the mile oval in New Hampshire on Sunday.
Harvick continued his streak of not having been eliminated from any round of the Chase since 2014. That was the first year of the new Sprint Cup championship format, which Harvick christened by winning it.
Driving a Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy, he won at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in typical Harvick fashion. He uneventfully worked his way to the front and didn't announce any potential for winning until the Golden Mile turned yellow and went into its usual tailspin of late-race cautions.
After a near-disastrous opening Chase race a week earlier, where events conspired to keep him a lap down most of the day, Harvick served notice that Chevrolet may well have some teams that can stand up to the Toyotas of Furniture Row Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.
The last six laps were the only ones that Harvick led all day. That was good enough to advance him to the Round of 12 that begins in Charlotte in two weeks after the Round of 16 concludes in Dover, Del., on Sunday.
The span from the end of the first Chase race until the second one was a frustrating episode for the driver from Bakersfield, Calif. In addition to his problems in Chicago, Harvick was among those agitated by NASCAR's midweek flip-flop on how it would administer penalties for teams caught with additional "skew" in the rear tires.
Like most observers, Harvick understood the enforcement of the rule was not about how much a team might go over in the measurements. Rather the rule was about a team trying to cut it too close and failing to stay within the limits. After going over slightly at Chicagoland, Truex and Jimmie Johnson both benefited without penalty due to NASCAR's change to administering penalties only for significant overages in measurements taken in post-race laser inspection.
"I was just absolutely irate all week about everything that went on," said Harvick, who added he didn't calm down until the day before the New Hampshire race. Now 40, he added that he's discovered a new talent in the years since he won his first Sprint Cup race in 2001 as the heir apparent to Dale Earnhardt Sr. at Richard Childress Racing.
"Over the past several years I think I've become a lot better at letting things go," said Harvick, who has won 11 races in 100 starts for Stewart-Haas since leaving RCR after the 2013 season. "You can hold a lot in and frustrate yourself and you're just not going to perform at the level that you need to perform and communicate with your team and the people around you. It just really wasn't -- I had to move on, and it worked out for us."
Known as "Happy" for an alternately dour or bright outlook -- each in ample evidence in the past two weeks -- Harvick is not shy about blowing off steam in addition to letting the anger go. The Chicagoland incident where he banged into Truex on the straightaway last week was an example. In a Trump-like pivot once in New Hampshire, Harvick told Truex he was angry at the Toyota driver for hitting him. That struck Truex and others as a bit of mystery.
Despite his frustrations, Harvick arrived in New England ready to win from his bubble position of 12th place in the Chase standings. Asked about his driver's ability to race well with his back to the wall, crew chief Rodney Childers acknowledged that Harvick helps lead the way when it comes to bouncing back from misfortune under the elimination format.
"You have to believe that you can win or you're not going to do it," said Childers. "We felt like we brought a good car here and thought that we could pull off the victory if we did everything right, and it just really came down to doing everything right. It's not always going to be that way, but he definitely steps up to the table, and all my guys do, also, and I think it just works out."
The No. 4 Stewart-Haas team surely gets motivation from a driver who never quits. A year ago, a decision by Childers to have his crew shake the rear of the team's Chevy during a gas-only pit stop actually added air to the tank instead of more gas. The fastest car on the track, Harvick ran out of fuel while leading shortly before the finish. In a must-win situation, Harvick and his team advanced to the next round of the Chase with a victory in Dover.
The win in New Hampshire this year was well received by fans, some of whom rushed the fences during Harvick's victory lap. After two straight wins by Kenseth on the Golden Mile, this could be interpreted as a vote in favor of Chevy over Toyota by the fans in New England, a traditional stronghold for NASCAR -- particularly in the home-built Modified category which long has featured American-made engines and other high-performance aftermarket parts from GM.
The SHR team gets its Chevy chassis and engines from Hendrick Motorsports, which also had another relatively strong day before the cautions took Chase Elliott out of contention due to his worn tires and inside position on the final two restarts.
It's been said it only takes two cars to make a race. But it doesn't hurt to have two manufacturers in the championship as well. It could well be three manufacturers in the hunt if Team Penske can find a bit more speed for its Fords to go along with the driving of Brad Keselowski, who is positioned to advance after Dover following two Top 5 finishes despite not having the quickness to contend for victory.
Asked about beating the Toyotas, which have dominated this season, Childers exuded confidence.
"I think the question is can we stop ourselves," he said after his team's third victory this year. "That's the question. I felt like we had a great car last weekend and put ourselves in a bad position and probably could have won the race just like they did, and we won today. So it's up to us. It's up to us to take good cars to the race track. It's up to us to have good pit stops. It's up to me to make good decisions during the weekend and on pit road, and I think if we do that, we'll keep advancing as far as we can."
Last year, Harvick used a good result in Phoenix to advance to the final Chase race in Homestead for the second straight year before Busch took the final round to win the title. This year, having avoided desperation in the opening three-race segment, one wonders how Harvick and his team will handle the current prosperity.
Is the threat of winning equally motivating as the threat of losing? Time will tell.