MARTINSVILLE, Virginia — Kevin Harvick has picked his way through traffic before at Martinsville Speedway, never when the stakes were so high.
A poor qualifying effort has Harvick starting 33rd, behind all the other title contenders, in Sunday's race on the Virginia short track. Because the rest of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field is starting in the top 13, Harvick won't have much time to avoid being lapped.
His Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet was considerably faster on Saturday — he was fastest in the final practice of the weekend — so crew chief Rodney Childers didn't seem too concerned about race day.
"Just gotta roll with it at this point," said Childers. "In the spring we went back to 30th three different times and drove back to the top-five like it wasn't nothing, so you've just got to have a good car and drive up there."
There's no margin for error as the third round of the Chase begins Sunday. There are eight drivers remaining from a field that started with 16 but has gone through two rounds of cuts after every three races.
Now the Chase hits the critical stretch — races at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix — and winners earn an automatic berth into the finale. NASCAR will crown the champion on Nov. 16 at Homestead, where the final four will race for the title. The winner will be the highest finisher of the four eligible drivers.
It will take either victories or consistency to make it to Homestead, and Harvick will have to hustle on Sunday. Although he drove from 36th to third in 2010, this marks just the seventh time in 27 career starts he has started outside the top 20 at Martinsville.
Qualifying had really been a strong point for the No. 4 team all season, too, as fast cars had led Harvick to a series-best eight poles.
But Childers said he was off Friday with the car, and sent Harvick out too early in the first round of qualifying.
"I just screwed up. I thought maybe the track would be good early, and it was horrible," Childers said. On Harvick's second attempt, he hit the wall, but Childers said the car sustained minimal damage.
Harvick won at Martinsville in April 2011 and has driven from the back of the field at various times. Still, in 131 Cup races at Martinsville, drivers who have started outside the top 20 have won just six times. Kurt Busch won in March from 22nd, and only one Martinsville winner has ever started worse than 24th.
Childers said they'll be patient.
"It's not that big a deal unless something stupid happens on the race track or something stupid happens on pit road," Childers said. "If you've got a car that's just as good as the leader you don't have to worry about (being lapped). They've got the same traffic to go through that you've got to go through, so it all comes down to getting the car right (in practice) and you won't have any of that to worry about."
OTHER THINGS TO WATCH SUNDAY AT MARTINSVILLE:
PAYBACKS?: The racing at Martinsville, a 0.526-mile paper-clip-shaped track with tight corners, can often create situations where paybacks are delivered for past incidents. And, they can be made to look like racing incidents and not intentional.
The Chase drivers all know that going into Sunday.
"Martinsville, it builds a lot of drama anyway because it's tough on brakes, you're trying to outbreak other competitors, the double-file restarts (are tough)," said eight-time and defending race winner Jeff Gordon.
"You take any animosity that's been built up over the season into that race and that is certainly a place that people feel like that they can play payback. If there are some guys out there doing that, I just hope I'm not on their list."
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The six-time and defending NASCAR champion was eliminated from the Chase last week, but Johnson believes he's still a threat to win races this year.
His next trip to Victory Lane could come Sunday at Martinsville, where he's an eight-time winner.
But like Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, all the Hendrick Motorsports drivers are trying to win Sunday to help mark the 10-year anniversary of the Hendrick plane crash that killed 10 people en route to this race.
Killed that Sunday morning were team owner Rick Hendrick's son, brother, twin nieces, the HMS general manager, head engine builder, key sponsor representative, two pilots, and a pilot for Tony Stewart.
"For the four Hendrick drivers, we want to make those families smile," Johnson said. "It means more to a few families, more than it typically would. All four of us are here, ready and willing. I want to be the one carrying the trophy out of here to honor those families."
MCMURRAY'S BIG WEEKEND: Jamie McMurray picked the perfect weekend for his first solo trip with his son.
McMurray brought Carter, who turns 4 next month, to Martinsville for some father-son bonding and celebrated by winning his second pole of the season. He set a qualifying record and was faster than all the Chase drivers. McMurray is not in the Chase.
For McMurray, Sunday is a chance for both himself and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Kyle Larson to take some attention away from the Chase drivers.
"You run in the top five all day long and you probably don't get the recognition," McMurray said.
STEWART'S START: Tony Stewart will start fourth on Sunday as he searches for his first victory of the season. The three-time champion has won at least one race in every one of his 15 seasons and has just four chances left to keep that streak intact.
He's not been the best qualifier this season, although he did start fourth two weeks ago at Charlotte but dropped quickly and finished 21st.
Stewart said the biggest advantage to starting up front Sunday will be his pit selection.
"Every stall is like a shoebox. It's like putting a pair of shoes in it, that's all you can get in it," he said. "It's very hard depending on who's in front of you and who's behind you. If you don't have an opening, you can't really guard it. If all three of you are on the same lap and you come in to your spot, it's really hard to get in and out of your box.
"If you can get an opening, a clean in or a clean out it's a big advantage."