In this age of NASCAR parity, it’s rare to find a driver head and shoulders above the rest at a particular track. Engineering, aerodynamics and even the gamble of double-file restarts make it near impossible to put together a winning streak carrying over years of competition.
Kevin Harvick and Phoenix are the rare exception.
Harvick won at the track in the fall of 2012, just as rumors cropped up he’d be leaving Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas Racing once his contract ran out. That started a streak of six wins in nine races, an average finish of 2.8 during that stretch and no finish worse than 13th.
Since Harvick aligned with SHR, starting in the spring of 2014 those stats pull even more of a knockout punch. He’s won four of six, gone six-for-six on top-5 finishes in the No. 4 car and led 994 laps.
That’s why this weekend becomes critically important for Harvick. He earned his worst finish at the track in three years, a fourth last time out in November while failing to lead a single lap. It cost him a spot in NASCAR’s final four at Homestead, one people thought would be assured for him considering their recent run of dominance.
The “near-miss” phenomenon has carried into 2017 for a winless Harvick. Why the shutout? NASCAR’s closer has struggled with blown saves, victimized by pit road speeding and even a blown Goodyear tire that cost him at Vegas. Despite taking three of the sport’s nine stages this year he’s without a top-5 finish and sits eighth in the playoff standings despite leading a series-high 352 laps.
Phoenix is a track where Harvick should take control, putting a clamp on his struggles while opening the door to a playoff bid months early. Phoenix is the closest track he has to an automatic.
It’s time to see if dominance is approaching dynasty… or if his time on top is nearing an end out West.
Camping World 500
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Phoenix International Raceway (Avondale, Ariz.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Team Penske
Sure, Brad Keselowski gave up the ghost during the final laps at Vegas. A power problem pulled him back and gave Martin Truex Jr. a surprising victory. But Kes didn’t need to win to prove a point; Team Penske is on point when it comes to their 2017 handling package. He’s already clinched a playoff spot with a victory at Atlanta; teammate Joey Logano is the only driver to earn three straight top-10 finishes to start the year. And don’t sleep on Ryan Blaney, the sophomore driver from satellite Wood Brothers Racing who’s sixth in the standings with no finish worse than 18th.
Who’s at the Back: Jimmie Johnson & Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Since when has the 48/88 shop at Hendrick Motorsports been so far behind the 5/24? The two most experienced drivers in the stable have yet to earn a top-10 finish so far in 2017. Johnson has suffered through a number of silly pit road penalties and uncharacteristic mistakes; Earnhardt has had tire problems and looks a bit, well, tired in his return to the Cup level after six months away. Neither driver would make the playoffs if the season ended today and, while it’s still early, both need solid finishes this weekend to get back on track.
Kyle Busch. Joey Logano. The fight. Even if you didn’t see the race at Vegas you’ve had to have seen the melee by now. The battle that left Busch with a bloody forehead and Logano’s crew all up in arms did not result in any NASCAR penalties this week. Instead, the sanctioning body was thrilled their “boys, have at it” policy resulted in the fracas making some national headlines. When the ratings are down over 12 percent, as they were at Vegas you’re going to use anything and everything to keep people interested.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made headlines in NASCAR Nation this week when he showed up at Charlotte to do some “hot laps” with Dale Earnhardt Jr. The outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway was part of Zuckerberg’s plan to visit all 50 states this year while experiencing different communities and talking with different types of people on how they view the world.
“This is fun,” he said after using Facebook Live to document the experience. “I can understand why so many people love this.”
NASCAR by the Numbers
Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota drivers inside the top 10 in points after three races. JGR had two of the final four at Homestead while winning 12 of 36 events last year.
Crashes in three races for rookie Corey Lajoie. He sits 36th in Cup Series points, the lowest of any driver who has competed in every race thus far.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Harvick, Harvick, Harvick. Need we say more? There’s no need to get cute, no need to try and get weird with somebody else. Even if the No. 4 car doesn’t win it’s as guaranteed a top-5 finish as you’re going to get.
Kyle Larson, runner-up in the last two Cup races, has been trending upwards. That boost should carry over to Phoenix, a place where he was third last November despite never leading a lap in his career there. He’s quietly earned an average finish of 13.2 and is a great dark horse pick at a track where most won’t think to actually pick him.
Since joining Richard Childress Racing’s No. 31 Chevrolet Ryan Newman has gone five-for-six on top-12 finishes at Phoenix. The lone exception was a crash last spring, some bad luck that might scare people away but Newman doesn’t wreck very often. He’s got just five DNFs total in the last three years and chances are Phoenix will deliver you a quality fantasy performance.
How about sticking with RCR and little-used Paul Menard? He’s got three top-15 finishes in his last four Phoenix starts and jumped up to 10th in the race last November. Again, another dark horse pick where you could use one of your Yahoo! starts and get away with it, saving better drivers for later in the season.
What Vegas Thinks
As you’d expect, Kevin Harvick holds the edge heading into Sunday’s race. Vegasinsider.com has him at 5/1 odds. Kyle Busch is the only one within striking distance at 6/1.
What I Think
How can you bet against Harvick here? You just don’t. Expect the No. 4 car to find Victory Lane again in the spring race for the fourth time in the last four years.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)