No one has dominated a racetrack the past few years the way Kevin Harvick has staked his claim on Phoenix International Raceway. His finishes there since the fall of 2013 read as follows: 1st. 1st. 1st. 1st. 2nd. 1st. If not for last year’s bizarre ending, a rain-shortened event that found Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting in the right place at the right time, we’d be talking about six straight victories.
Can Harvick make it seven?
That’s the big question mark as NASCAR prepares to finish off its Round of 8 and whittle the Chase to four drivers battling for a winner-take-all championship at Homestead. Harvick, whose points position to make the cut is difficult-to-impossible will have to win in order to advance alongside two drivers who have already had their tickets punched – Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards.
If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Harvick had to win Phoenix two years ago to advance, a march toward his first championship in 2014. Half of his 12 wins since joining Stewart-Haas Racing have come in the postseason; several of them have been needed to earn the “automatic bid” they generate into the following round. This team has been able to conquer adversity in a way unmatched by its competitors during the most recent format changes of NASCAR’s Chase era.
But for Harvick, nothing is assured. He’s struggled in qualifying during this streak and will line up sixth on Sunday. It’s a rookie, Alex Bowman, who sits on the pole. The Truck Series race Friday also saw its best driver, William Byron, see his championship hopes die in a cloud of smoke nine laps from the checkered flag. Despite a series-leading six wins, he’ll be sitting on the sidelines and watching someone else hold up a trophy at Homestead that would be his in virtually any other title situation.
That’s the NASCAR era we live in and Harvick knows it. The most consistent driver of the sport’s last three years needs to live up to his “Closer” namesake. Whether he does so will tilt the scales between a diverse group of Championship 4 competitors or one that could easily be a trio of Joe Gibbs Racing drivers trying to deny Jimmie Johnson a record-tying seventh title.
Let the racing in the desert commence.
2016 Can-Am 500
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Phoenix International Raceway
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Joey Logano
No, he didn’t win at Texas; Carl Edwards found himself peaking when the rains came. But 178 laps led and a second-place finish leaves Logano with a strong chance to advance to the Championship 4, a major accomplishment for a Team Penske outfit that appeared a step behind early this Chase. In the last four races, Logano’s won once, posted four top-10 finishes and led 246 laps. Ford’s best hope this season now must improve on the disappointing 18th-place finish he received at Phoenix earlier this spring.
Who’s at the Back: Tony Stewart
Smoke’s ending his career with a whimper, not a bang after three finishes of 26th or worse in the last three races. It’s a stark contrast from what we saw from Jeff Gordon last year, momentum building from a Chase appearance to a title bid at Homestead that fell just short. In this case, Stewart was knocked out in postseason round one, lost confidence quickly, and is now just biding time and collecting retirement gifts until it all mercifully comes to an end later this month. Frustrated over the state of the sport, it’ll take a long list of short track races for Stewart to be smiling again at the racetrack on a regular basis.
Cup rookie Brian Scott, just 28 years old, surprised many by announcing he’ll retire after the season ends next week. Scott, whose family had joined corporate partners like Albertsons in financing his rise through the sport, had struggled in his ascendance to Cup this year; his second-place run at Talladega last month was his only top-10 result. Crashing out five times, Scott insists injury concerns are not the reason he’s quitting but rather a change of focus; he wants to spend more time with a growing family.
Albertsons, a company that has been involved in NASCAR for two decades announced they won’t return to sponsor the No. 44 or anyone in the sport next season. Richard Petty Motorsports claims they’ll still run the car, which owns a charter, and will announce a driver/sponsor combination at a later date.
Texas saw its rain delay continue NASCAR’s death spiral in the Nielsen ratings. The race scored just a 1.1 on NBCSN, moved there after Mother Nature forced its timing to conflict with NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” Less than two million viewers wound up watching a race, a decline of more than four million in viewership over the past decade.
Matt DiBenedetto was cleared to race this weekend at Phoenix after being put through the concussion protocol. DiBenedetto’s hard wreck during a Texas XFINITY race caused NASCAR to pull the plug on his Cup participation the following day; rookie Jeffrey Earnhardt subbed in the No. 83 Toyota for BK Racing.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Drivers out of the top 10 in Cup Series points that currently have at least one victory this season.
Points Brian Scott remains behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. even though Earnhardt has missed the last 16 races due to concussion problems. Perhaps this poor a season would cause anyone to think retirement?
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kevin Harvick, Kevin Harvick, Kevin Harvick. See above.
If, for some reason you can’t put Harvick out there consider the Joe Gibbs Racing foursome. All will be in the top tier and Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth finished inside the top seven in an uneventful spring race. Should the cream of the crop rise again, JGR will be up there with plenty to fight for: only Edwards is “locked in” to his Championship 4 spot.
Jamie McMurray has quietly put together the type of Phoenix resume that you need in this spot. He’s earned six straight top-20 finishes there, a hallmark of consistency despite leading just two laps during that span. It’s been a difficult postseason for McMurray and Chip Ganassi Racing but they’re looking to finish the year on a high note. The same goes for Kyle Larson, a driver who’s had moderate success here and ran 12th in the Phoenix race this spring.
Phoenix is typically unkind to those drivers on the wrong side of the tracks. But rookie Ryan Blaney, typically in the lower tier of leagues, shines out as a dark horse pick. He was 10th in the spring driving for the Wood Brothers, a team strongly aligned with Team Penske, and has shown some signs of life in the Chase. Currently on a streak of four straight top-20 finishes he offers you a far better chance of consistency, say, than Danica Patrick.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick. He’s at 3/2 odds at vegasinsider.com and no one else is even close. Kyle Busch sits a distant second at 6/1.
What I Think
With the type of track record Harvick has at this place how could you bet against him?! It’s as simple as that.
— 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 email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)