Kevin Harvick focused on a better performance at Las Vegas this time

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LAS VEGAS — Kevin Harvick stands alone in these Cup playoffs and, in a way, you almost wonder if he prefers it that way.

Twelve drivers remain. Eleven race for Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske. Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing team is the outlier.

A year after winning a series-high nine races, Harvick continues to look for his first Cup victory this season. Age has not chilled the 45-year-old’s intensity. He slammed his helmet against the roof of his car and confronted Chase Elliott after losing last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. 

As the second round starts, Harvick ranks last among the 12 drivers, a sign of his struggles to score playoff points via stage and race wins this season. Harvick, who won the 2014 championship, has never failed to reach at least the third round in the playoffs. This round could challenge that streak.

Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) marks the return to the track where signs of Harvick’s season-long struggles began to show.

He started on the pole and fell to 11th by Lap 7. Harvick dropped from 13th to 25th on Lap 32 after contact with another car. That led to a left front flat. He finished 20th.

Harvick, who starts fifth Sunday, has yet to lead a lap on a 1.5-mile track this year.

NASCAR rule changes and a parts freeze have handicapped Ford teams this season, most notably Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske at the 550-horsepower tracks. 

A hard part is we don’t know what’s going wrong,” car owner Tony Stewart said before the playoffs. “That’s why we’re still in this predicament. We’ve got some of the best and smartest people in the sport, and we’re all scratching our heads trying to figure out what is actually going on, but it’s not for the lack of effort.”

Despite those issues, Harvick and his team have used guile and experience to score 19 top-10 finishes. Harvick’s total trails only Kyle Larson (21 top 10s) and Denny Hamlin (20).

Harvick was one of four drivers to finish in the top 10 in each of the three races in the opening round. The others were Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin and Larson.  All three won a race in the round.

“We’ve had a lot of weeks where we’ve had just terrible cars, and you walk out with sixth, seventh, eighth-place finish,” Harvick said before last weekend’s Bristol race. “Our team has done a great job. We just needed to do a better job of getting faster cars. And sometimes that’s just not in the cards.

“They still have the race and you still just have to plug away and take everything you can get out of it. Try to make the least amount of mistakes.”

That experience showed in the opening round of the playoffs at Darlington Raceway. Several playoff contenders had problems. Harvick overcame a green-flag pit stop with less than 100 laps to go to finish fifth. He escaped any more issues by making it to the finish with a flat right rear tire after hitting the wall.

Seeing so many playoff drivers have poor finishes that night wasn’t surprising to Harvick.

“Everybody always loses their mind in the first race of the playoffs,” he said after the Southern 500. “It happens every year. If it’s not the first race, it’ll be one of the first three, or four, five in six, or seven, eight and nine. At some point they all lose their mind.”

Darlington also proved to be a step in the right direction for Harvick and his team.

“The biggest thing is proof we can unload off the truck with the balance right,” crew chief Rodney Childers told NBC Sports after the race. “That’s one thing we struggled with the most this year. The first run of the race, we had the best car. The second run of the race, we had the best car.”

Some might think that with the recent progress and the fire Harvick showed at Bristol could lead to a stronger run in this round. Such thinking, though, would overlook the team’s approach, which doesn’t change from week to week.

“I guess it was halfway through 2014 (that) if we were going to race like (Jimmie Johnson), you had to playoff race every week with that intensity and that mindset,” Harvick told NBC Sports before the playoffs.

“That’s really the decision we made several years ago to go out and do that and put your best foot forward and every race matters and every moment matters. You either learn from it, win from it or lose from it. There are so many things to learn when you push what you have to the extent that you think you can push it. … The expectation is to perform at that level on a weekly basis.”

It’s just a matter of if the results can match the effort.