Updated Oct 5, 2015 at 12:38p ET
Over the years I've seen professional athletes in every sport with their backs against the wall. I experienced it firsthand in 1979 and beat myself losing the championship in the last race of the year. But then in 1985, I used that experience I had gained from '79 to focus and overcome Bill Elliott's huge points lead and win my third NASCAR Cup championship. So I've not only seen but also actually been one of those athletes who had to perform when there was no tomorrow.
I've always said, "You have to play with emotion, but you can't let your emotion play with you." When the chips are down, we've seen some top-tier stars crumble and fail across all professional sports because they let their emotions overcome them. When the pressure is the highest, that's when it's the hardest to clear your mind and focus on doing your job.
That's what makes great athletes great. That's what makes great athletes exceptional. That's what makes them superstars. When the chips are down and they can find themselves in that rare moment of being able to perform better than the competition is when they are clearly defined as exceptional.
That's what we saw Sunday at Dover with Kevin Harvick. If you stop and think about it, we really shouldn't be that surprised because we saw him do it a couple times last year, especially in the last race of the year when he literally had to win the race to win the championship — and did.
Dover has always been the track that Jimmie Johnson built. The man has a record 10 wins there. So everyone, me included, thought Kevin was going to have a hard time beating Jimmie. The way the numbers were, Kevin could have even finished second on Sunday and still missed advancing to the next round of the Chase. So the reality for Kevin and the entire No. 4 team was they had no option but to win.
Do you realize how rare that is to know you have to win because there is no tomorrow if you don't, and then go out and win? That No. 4 team was flawless on Sunday. They started the race in 15th position. Kevin drove flawlessly. The pit crew performed flawlessly. Kevin dominated Dover like we've seen Jimmie do it in the past, leading 355 of 400 laps.
After the last two races we witnessed, you probably like me, were waiting to see what was going to happen to derail the No. 4 car. They had a flat tire that put them in the fence at Chicago, and then last week at Loudon they ran out of gas. So all the Harvick fans were on the edge of their seats 'till the checkered flag because in the back of their minds there was always that little voice asking, "What's going to go wrong now?" Well, the answer to that question was, "Absolutely nothing."
That was probably right up there at the top or near the top of the back-against-the-wall, pressure-on, there-is-no-tomorrow, flawless performances I have ever seen from any professional athlete.
Make no mistake, Dover is tough. Dover is concrete. Dover is high-banked and fast. It's 400 grueling miles that can take a toll on a driver and, more importantly, the race car, but that didn't happen to Kevin. Getting on pit road is treacherous. Pit road speed was only 35 miles per hour so one misstep on pit road and your day is probably over. The team could leave a wheel loose. Pit lane is narrow and you could hit another car as you are leaving your pits. Just some little detail could have happened to the No. 4 car Sunday, but it didn't.
Like I mentioned earlier, Jimmie Johnson was the odds-on favorite to win that race. The poor guy had a $5 rear-end seal blow out on him and it cost him the 2015 championship. Did you see that coming? Did I see that coming? I doubt anyone saw that coming because those Hendrick cars are normally bulletproof, but that's racing.
That's what made what Kevin did Sunday so impressive. There are only three races until the cutoff. The first two races they basically beat themselves. They were in a deep, deep hole and winning the race really was their only option, so they went out and did it. It was their last chance. It wasn't their last second chance; it was their last chance.
Kevin got his first win since Phoenix. Trust me: The only thing that Phoenix and Dover have in common is they are one mile in length. That's it — period. Those two tracks are day and night from each other. So winning at the one-mile Phoenix track had no bearing on Kevin winning Sunday at Dover.
So now 12 drivers move onto the next round and I can promise you that No. 4 car doesn't want to be in the position they found themselves entering Sunday's race. I'm sure they are going to do everything in their power not to make the same mistakes in beating themselves in this next round like they did at Chicago and Loudon.
How about the incredible battle for the 12th and final transfer spot on Sunday? Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray were tied for 12th and the tiebreaker was who finished better in the race Sunday. Dale Jr. finished third and Jamie finished fourth. It was a valiant effort by Jamie and his No. 1 team to try and move on in their first Chase, but they just came up one spot short.
I also want to tip my hat to Jimmie Johnson for the way he handled himself after the race. He saw his chance of a record-tying seventh championship evaporate, but he was the epitome of class in defeat.
I also want to make mention of Aric Almirola. They've had two top-five and three top-10 finishes in the last four races. I really think that team woke up at Richmond after they failed to make the Chase. I think they have a better understanding after the Richmond race of what it takes to be a Chase contender.
Someone else that hasn't had a whole lot to brag about this year got a great finish Sunday. I'm talking about Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in my ol' No. 17 car. Ricky finished eighth and was one of three Fords in the top 10 Sunday. They needed a great run like that to build momentum for 2016 as they've only had one top-five finish, and Sunday marked only their second top-10 finish in 29 races, so I was happy to see that happen for Ricky.
So it was a really interesting race with definitely some twists and turns we never saw coming. Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray are now eliminated from the Chase. Twelve drivers move forward to Charlotte this Saturday night, the only night race in the Chase, by the way.
All four Joe Gibbs Racing cars are moving on. We have two Hendrick Motorsports and both Penske Fords advancing. We have a Furniture Row car, one Richard Childress Racing car and two Stewart-Haas cars left as well. Just because we are starting a brand-new round, don't expect the emotion and tension to ease up. Remember the scuffle after the race last fall here at Charlotte with Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski.
So Saturday night begins the next three-race round in the 2015 Chase. We'll probably get a pretty good sneak peek at what is going to happen the rest of this Chase at Charlotte. I can't wait to see how it all plays out Saturday night.