HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) Kevin Harvick has always followed the path that best suits him, even when it created unnecessary chaos for him and his race team.
He picked fights with fellow competitors in spectacular fashion - Harvick grabbed Greg Biffle by the throat, jumped on the hood of Ricky Rudd's car, used moves learned as a high school wrestler to toss aside Carl Edwards - and showed little care for consequences.
Then he became a father and learned to channel his anger.
''If I was jumping over the hood of a car right now, went into my house, had a 6-year-old ... do you know how embarrassed I would be to walk in the front door and answer that question, `Hey, dad, why did you jump over that guy's car, grab him by the throat?''' Harvick said. ''Then it would get more embarrassing as you take him to school, drive through the carpool lines to see his teachers that are all watching, as well.''
Harvick remained calm a week ago when a flat tire nearly deflated his remarkable season. He has eight victories this year, tied with Kyle Busch for most in the Cup Series, but a cheating violation cost him his automatic berth into Sunday's championship race. Harvick and the No. 4 team had to requalify at Phoenix , and that early tire problem could have ended his bid.
But he kept his composure, listened to interim crew chief Tony Gibson's instructions and salvaged a fifth-place finish that put him back in NASCAR's championship field. Harvick credited the growth he's had during an 18-year career that has him eligible for a second Cup title.
''I don't say all the right things, do all the right things,'' Harvick said. ''As you go through life, I would hope we all mature from a life standpoint to be able to be a better person. I still screw up a lot.''
Indeed, it's been a slippery two weeks for the most dominant driver of the season. Harvick had been expected all along to make Sunday's title-deciding race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but his race-winning Ford from Texas had an illegal spoiler. Of his eight wins this season, two have been disqualified for rules violations.
Only the spoiler problem at Texas was egregious and perhaps will put an asterisk next to his name for all of his 2018 successes. Stewart-Haas Racing has not disputed NASCAR's claim that the team deliberately cheated and gained additional downforce, and crew chief Rodney Childers on Twitter copped to using an offset spoiler because other teams did it first.
Childers was suspended for the final two weeks of the season, and Harvick was close to combative in the days after the penalty was issued. He masterfully deflected talk away from the cheating allegation and insulated his team from any distractions.
Harvick is at his best when he feels he's got something to prove.
''I feel like we race with a chip on our shoulder every week,'' said Harvick, who leads the Cup series in top-five finishes, top-10s and laps led. ''As far as the motivation goes, it's always different. There's really nothing that's ever the same. It would be difficult to start a year if you didn't have anything, for me, that I could reach out and grab and wrap your arms around and motivate yourself.
''It's always a moving target. I think that target moves throughout the year, as well. You get into a situation like you had after Texas, then it's your spoiler.''
Harvick and Childers remain adamant the spoiler was not instrumental in the Texas victory, but competitors have their own opinions.
''The first question across my mind was how long?'' Kyle Busch said. ''How long has that been going on? What else are they doing?''
Busch has gone win-for-win with Harvick all season and the two head into the finale as the favorites. Along with reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr., the so-called Big Three combined for 20 of 35 victories. Should one of them win, they'd join Jimmie Johnson as the only active Cup drivers with multiple titles.
Standing in their way is Joey Logano, who got his program up to speed during the playoffs and is a viable challenger.
Everything Harvick has worked for this year will be decided in three hours Sunday. But if the race doesn't go his way, it won't ruin the season.
''You want to win the championship because obviously you think it would be icing on the cake with everything that you've accomplished,'' Harvick said. ''But it's just not that easy. There's nothing that's going to devastate us to the point of not being able to function any more, but to go along with everything we've done this year, it definitely would seem fitting to add that to the year end.''
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