Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer happy to return to Richmond, while Jimmie Johnson looks for improvement

RICHMOND — No one is more a poster boy for the new Chase qualifying system than Kevin Harvick. In 22nd place in the standings as the Sprint Cup Series rolls off at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night for the Toyota Owners 400, Harvick likely would be concerned about reaching the postseason were the Chase setup the same as four years ago.

Remember that Jamie McMurray owned Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 trophies in 2010, but didn't have enough points to make the Chase. With two victories in hand, Harvick's Chase spot is impregnable.

That means he, like other early winners this season, can take risks choosing when to pit, how many tires to take and how hard to run late in races. So his disposition this weekend befits his nickname, "Happy" — certainly happier than Jimmie Johnson and perhaps even more than Clint Bowyer, both of whom are well ahead of Harvick in points.

"It's just one of those deals where being the points leader and having points is really irrelevant at this point," Harvick said at Richmond on Friday. "You just go out and try to put your best foot forward every week to get a win.

"I think for us we have been, I guess, like a Ricky Bobby scene (from the movie "Talladega Nights"). We've either been first or last. There's been no in between."

He's been consistently good at RIR. Harvick has won twice here in his past five starts and is the defending champion of the spring race.

"As we've come through the years, I have been fortunate to have a lot of success," Harvick said. "I always look forward to coming to this race weekend just knowing that and hoping that you can contend for a win."

Irritation with RIR has replaced hope in the Johnson camp. He was the King of Richmond at the tail end of the George W. Bush administration, with three wins in four tries between May 2007 and September 2008.

He's averaged 17th in the 10 races since Obama moved into the White House, with a worst of 40th this past fall. It's a strange slump because his Lowe's team started the Car of Tomorrow/Gen 6 era (2007-present) here so well.

"We suck here," Johnson said. "We're terrible and hopefully we are a lot better this weekend.

"The last couple of trips here especially we've been junk. Just getting beat by a track gets under your skin as well."

Johnson hasn't gotten the win this season that would virtually lock him into the Chase, but at fifth in the Cup standings he's been solid. So he's not worrying about the Chase, even with its top-heavy emphasis on victories.

"I don't know how long we went in the past before we won a race to start the season," said Johnson, who said he doesn't even consider that unless asked. "I don't have this big fear that I'm not going to make the Chase and I'm not going to win a race.

"If we were running 15th and 20th every week, I would be nervous and honestly I would tell you. But the fact we've been knocking on the door (with three top fives) gives me great hope and optimism."

Bowyer would be, under normal circumstances, heading into Richmond with the wind at his back. He rebounded from an atrocious start to 2014 with an average finish of ninth in the past three races, moving him from 23rd to 16th in the standings.

Then, in the week off between Darlington and Richmond, he got married. Add in that RIR has been very good to Bowyer — who has a first and second here in his past three races — and the optimism he displayed Friday is understandable.

"This is one of my best tracks," he said. "Looking back over the years, you always have a track that fits your driving style and your confidence level is more for some reason."

But that answer came in response to a question about the third race of the aforementioned three, the one that still hounds him. The question about was about the "events of last September," when NASCAR judged that Bowyer spun intentionally to bring out a caution to help teammate Martin Truex Jr. make the Chase.

Truex was subsequently disqualified from the Chase spot he seemingly earned, lost sponsor NAPA as a result and moved from the Michael Waltrip Racing team to Furniture Row. So, while life is mostly good for Bowyer, his return to Richmond prompts questions about his last visit and its affect on his fans.

"The fan base, Twitter and things like that, I took a beating for awhile but we weathered the storm," he said. "It's behind us and it's a lot of fun to interact with those fans, whether it's good or bad.

"It's all positive interaction as far as I'm concerned because they're talking about our sport."

O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.