CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — No one would have blamed a championship contender for getting just a little bit excited when Kevin Harvick wrecked during the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
And it would have been understandable if a driver or two had started salivating a bit when Harvick ran out of gas while leading the very next week.
The reigning Sprint Cup champion had been backed deep into a corner Unless he overcame some pretty heavy odds, he'd be knocked out of the way in the race for the championship.
Funny thing is, not a single driver in the Chase field counted Harvick out. They knew better than to believe Harvick wouldn't put up an epic fight, at a track where he'd never won before, where anything short of a victory would end his bid to win consecutive titles.
Indeed, Harvick put on a clinic Sunday at Dover International Speedway, where he led all but 45 of the 400 laps to grab his first career win on the Delaware concrete. He was in complete control from start to finish, he pulled away from the pack on every restart and he won in such convincing fashion that the rest of the field should have been embarrassed.
The win earned Harvick the automatic berth he needed into the second round of the Chase. That achievement was lost on no one.
"That was a guy that we wanted to knock out. That's a guy that can win all these races, and you don't want to have to compete against a guy like that," said Kyle Busch, who started the 10-race Chase as the top seed but has been outrun each week by Harvick.
Harvick's win at Dover should be very, very frightening to the 11 remaining title contenders. He was against the ropes after the opening race at Chicago, where contact with Jimmie Johnson led to a tire rub that ultimately caused him to wreck. The incident dropped him to last in the 16-driver field with two races to either claw his way to 12th, or win at tracks where he'd never before driven a Cup car to victory lane.
He nearly did it at New Hampshire, where he led 216 of 300 laps before running out of fuel as he closed in on the checkered flag. That meant nothing short of a win at Dover would keep his Chase alive.
Harvick and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team remained undeterred. In the days leading into Dover, crew chief Rodney Childers seemed completely at ease. He said he had no trouble sleeping at night, and was confident in his team and his driver.
Childress also presented an interesting hypothetical: He wondered what would the fallout be should Harvick lap every car in the field, and Childers asked it in a way that made it sound as if the No. 4 team has been holding something back every week.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. more or less confirmed that late last week when he pondered the idea that Harvick could be eliminated from the Chase in the first round. But he noted that the reigning champion, in nearly every practice session of the season, was "really embarrassing the (heck) out of everybody."
Yet Harvick went into the Chase with only two wins in the regular season (he did, however, have 10 second-place finishes) and had been outrun to a large degree over the summer by Joe Gibbs Racing's strong four-car contingent.
After the way he ran at Dover — like he owned the place, really — could it be Harvick has simply been toying with his challengers all year?
It sure sounded that way as he coolly opened his post-race news conference.
"Yeah, I don't think there was really any pressure," said Harvick, "you know, all in all, it was business as usual."
Business as usual may very well mean the rest of the field is running for second place in this Chase.