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No one better under pressure

Kevin Harvick had to win at Dover International Speedway last week to stay in NASCAR’s Chase. Last season, he had to win at Phoenix International Raceway to advance to the Chase’s final four. He then had to beat Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win the 2014 championship.

Must-win is a term that’s flung around so often, and so incorrectly, that it ceases to mean what it’s supposed to. It’s supposed to mean that if an athlete (or team) fails to win he or she is out, finished, eliminated.

With Harvick embellishment is not required. To contend for the championship last season and this season, he three times had to win a must-win race. Three times he did.

How?

“I don’t know,” says Harvick, who will start 11th in the Bank of America 500 on Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “For me, you just go drive the car. There’s no secret to it.”

Eleven other drivers still have a chance to win the 2015 championship. Charlotte will be the first race in the Contender Round.

Unlike last week in Dover, Del., Harvick doesn’t have to win. Somebody tells him the urgency is gone and asks if he can relax.

“Come to my office,” says Harvick, who turns 40 in December. “Everything is urgent.”

After a brief pause, he says, “No.”

No, he can’t relax, won’t relax, doesn’t want to relax.

The Chase remains controversial, at least with old-school fans who saw no need for NASCAR to borrow a playoff format from sports such as football, basketball and baseball.

But no matter how ancient your school, don’t you find the Chase compelling? Sixteen drivers qualified for the Challenger Round, and after three races, 16 became 12. After Charlotte and the next two races, 12 will become eight. After three more races, eight will become four.

And after one race, the NASCAR equivalent of Game 7, four will become one. If Harvick advances to a winner-take-all race, who would you bet on?

“I like what I do,” he says. “I like being behind the wheel and being in the fight. It’s a battle on a daily basis whether its practice or qualifying. And being in that mind set, being that competitor, to me that’s a rush. The higher the level of competition, the bigger the rush. Maybe that’s a unique way of explaining it. But that’s really what drives all of us, is the competition.

“My preparation last week was really no different than it would have been (for any other race). And to be honest, I was at peace with whatever way it went. I knew we had done everything we could to prepare.”

Harvick obviously is a talent. But talent permeates the Contender Round. Talent isn’t enough. At Dover last week, and at Phoenix and Homestead last season, he put himself in position to take advantage of his talent.

Pressure affects athletes differently. We’ve seen them succeed, and we’ve seen them succumb. The dynamic is bigger than sports. No matter what you do for a living, there are times when you have to do it well.

To make the NFL playoffs last season, the Carolina Panthers had to win their final four regular-season games. Nothing they had done in the previous 12 games indicated they were capable. They won anyway.

Do you have players who, like Harvick, perform better under pressure?

“A lot of them,” Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera says Wednesday after his team’s final bye-week practice.

Who immediately comes to mind?

“Cam (Newton), Luke (Kuechly) and TD (Thomas Davis) just to name a few,” Rivera says.

What’s the quality that they, like Harvick, possess?

“There are three things I tell them at every meeting,” Rivera says. “They are attitude, preparation and effort.”

His message is simple. Embrace those qualities and step onto the field ready to win.

I tell Harvick that I write about athletes in other sports for whom pressure is a benefit and for whom it is a detriment.

Do you even feel it?

“I would never say that I don’t feel pressure,” Harvick says. “I think how you act in those pressure types of situations can be altered. ... Pressure can be motivating or devastating. So I’m fortunate at this particular point pressure has been motivating.

“You see a lot of sports teams … and things didn’t go good and next thing you know it crumbles at the seams in a lot of different directions for years to come.”

You get the sense Harvick won’t crumble. Is it about confidence?

Harvick smiles and says: “I don’t think we lack that.”          

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