"You can't be conservative. You can't go there hoping for a top-10 because, as you've seen over the past few years, top-fives, leading the laps is what it's going to take over the next three weeks. I just believe it's one of three cars that is going to do that and hopefully we can keep pace."
That's almost exactly the same thought offered by Terry Labonte after winning the 1996 UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, putting him just one point behind Jeff Gordon with three races to go. At that time, it was the closest points race since 1979, when Darrell Waltrip was up by 17 points on Richard Petty.
"As close as the points are, you're going to have to go into every race like it's the last one," Labonte said after his Victory Lane celebration. "It's different if you have a big points lead. Then you're probably a little more cautious. But that's not the case."
For Labonte to even be in that situation seemed surprising. Gordon had won 10 times that year, including four races in September, and had built a triple-digit lead on Labonte and third-place Dale Jarrett heading into Charlotte. Gordon started on the front row next to Bobby Labonte and promptly took the lead on the first lap, leading many to believe it would only be a matter of time before he would romp to his second consecutive championship.
But Gordon's luck was about to change for the worse. His engine began to miss, and even though he continued to run in the top five, he began to worry about whether or not he'd make it to the finish. Those fears were eventually realized when his No. 24 Chevrolet rolled slowly into the pits on Lap 176 with what was diagnosed as a cracked cylinder head.
While the unscheduled stop put Gordon three laps down, Terry Labonte was taking every advantage of the opportunity provided. Starting 16th, Labonte worked his way into the lead for the first time on Lap 61, and remained near the front for the rest of the day, trading places at times with Mark Martin, Ricky Craven, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Burton before taking command for good with 26 laps remaining.
At the same time, Gordon's issues were compounded after he and Billy Standridge tangled.
"The motor started missing pretty bad and I saw the No. 78 car of Standridge," Gordon said. "I went in the corner and he kind of clipped me in the left rear. If it hadn't been for the engine trouble, we wouldn't have been back there in the first place. Those are things we can't control. We can't worry about 'em."
"It wasn't our day," he said. "I didn't think we were going to finish. We're going to have to fight real hard from here on out. We'll see what we're made of now.
"I don't know if we could have won the race, but without the problem I think we could have finished in the top five and that's what we were looking for. This will be a big tester for us. We'll see what we're made of."
Labonte never gave Gordon another opportunity. Labonte finished third at Rockingham and Phoenix, and fifth in the season finale at Atlanta to beat Gordon by 37 points as Gordon never regained the momentum he lost after his disastrous day at Charlotte.
And Labonte's words continue to ring true 14 years later.
"It's hard to gain 110 points on somebody, but it's not hard to lose 110 points," Labonte said. "We sat down with Jeff at Daytona in July and agreed that the guy that wins the championship will be the guy with the least amount of problems."
On Sunday, Harvick echoed Labonte's thoughts about this year's Chase.
"For me it's all about not making a mistake," Harvick said. "I think if you make a mistake -- obviously there's three guys -- of those three, everybody's not going to make a mistake. You're going to have to run in the top five and have a chance to win, in my opinion."