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Defending Sprint Cup Champion Kevin Harvick Runs Away From Field at Las Vegas

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Kevin Harvick Kobalt 400 Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Kevin Harvick Kobalt 400 Las Vegas Motor Speedway

This season, NASCAR trumpeted its new rules package as another step toward greater parity within the Cup Series. A driver-adjustable track bar, new pit road officiating and tapered spacers were all designed to bring greater evolution to a sport that’s looking for photo finishes.

Instead? Three races in, what we’ve got is a series of ho-hum endings. Joey Logano won the Daytona 500 when the yellow flag was thrown on the last lap, deflating any hope of a hair-raising finish. Next, Jimmie Johnson dominated Atlanta, a race that showed little difference from how 2014 played out on intermediates. Then came Sunday, a Las Vegas race that Kevin Harvick turned into a long-term runaway. Once the Hendrick Motorsports cars of Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon all received crash damage the coast was clear for last season’s defending champ to run away with the trophy.

In one sense, we have parity with three winners in three races. But what do those drivers have in common? Logano was a finalist for last year’s title, Harvick won it and Johnson has taken six championship trophies since 2006. That’s a whole lot of experience up front, driving for the same chassis (Penske and Hendrick), which took the Cup Series by storm last season.

Clearly, there’s a long way to go this year and plenty of chances for new faces to shine. A few, like Martin Truex Jr. and AJ Allmendinger continue to defy the odds with underdog programs. But so far, despite better television ratings 2015 remains threatened by four words NASCAR doesn’t want to see these days.

More of the same.

Through The Gears we go...

FIRST GEAR: Harvick Humming Right Along

The 2014 Sprint Cup champion, Harvick came into 2015 determined not to skip a beat — and he hasn’t. A second, second, and first so far have him atop the Sprint Cup standings by 9 points, posting a sparkling 1.7 average finish. His 258 laps led top the circuit while Sunday’s Las Vegas victory has him all but assured to make another Chase.

So why is Harvick running scared? He spent the majority of his winner’s press conference explaining the constant fear he has the No. 4 team will never be good enough.

“I have been absolutely terrified that we would never sit up here again, and I think that's the motivation that he and I have talked about, just making sure that you don't let everybody down,” he said. “You want to — you have to figure out ways to motivate yourself and motivate our team, and for us, it's just that motivation of trying to be the best you can in every practice and be the best that you can in qualifying. Friday, you would have thought that the end of the world had come because you looked at everybody on the team and it was like, oh, my gosh, we qualified 18th.”

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Of course, they didn’t stay there, marching to the front where Harvick pounced the second Johnson went down with tire problems. The “fear factor” appears to be working, continually pushing a team that gets along within a larger organization falling apart. Don’t forget how Harvick’s three teammates are doing: Tony Stewart (34th! in points), Danica Patrick (spun in practice, been virtually invisible), and Kurt Busch (indefinitely suspended). How this team has been able to bond together, supporting each other with such chaos around them is truly impressive.

SECOND GEAR: Truex, Allmendinger Defying The Odds

Harvick’s Vegas victory, done on cruise control did come with a surprise runner-up finisher. Truex Jr. wound up second, his best result since joining Furniture Row Racing in 2014 along with his third straight top-10 finish. Now fourth in points, that’s the best a No. 78 driver has been in the history of the team since it started on the Cup level in 2005. It’s one of the sport’s big surprises, a shocking recovery after the team led just a single lap all last season. On a personal level, Truex had to watch girlfriend Sherry Pollex undergo treatment for ovarian cancer, meaning the painful moments didn’t stop once the checkered flag flew.

“Last year was — there was days where it was just really hard to even think about racing because it was so miserable,” he said. “But I think at the end of the day, I'm proud of our guys for sticking behind me. I think that there was never a time where I quit on them. I never gave up on them.”

Now, the hard work is paying off. Truex’s team has an alliance with Richard Childress Racing, providing them with chassis and testing information they need to be successful. Both he and Allmendinger, of single-car JTG-Daugherty Racing seem to be using the parts and pieces better than the team that’s providing them; both sit inside the top 5 in Sprint Cup points. For Allmendinger, the good vibes continue with a No. 47 team that made the Chase last year and expects to do so again, this time building the consistency needed to be a contender deeper than just the first round.

THIRD GEAR: Pit Road Problems

No pit road officials? No problem. NASCAR, with its new penalty replay system rather than eyeballing violations doled out 34 total penalties Sunday. Five of them were tire violations, an unusual number that helped cause debris cautions. Another dozen were speeding penalties, affecting big names like Stewart, Logano and Carl Edwards.

Logano and Penske teammate Brad Keselowski (tire) were perhaps affected the worst; lost track position left them 10th and seventh, respectively with otherwise front-running cars. Yet perhaps the biggest problems were “penalties” NASCAR no longer calls. A loose wheel led to an unscheduled green-flag stop for the No. 48 car, with no official eyeballing whether all the lugnuts were tightened. A later tire failure ended the day for Johnson; who knows if NASCAR could have caught either one?

FOURTH GEAR: Gordon Snakebit In Final Season

You’ve got to feel for Gordon, running his final full-time season in the sport. The No. 24 car has been super fast, scoring two poles in the first three races and leading the most laps in February’s Daytona 500. But each weekend, he’s wound up disappointed, the innocent victim in a wreck not of his making. At Las Vegas, it didn’t even take until race time for bad vibes to seep through; Patrick spun in front of him during the final minutes of Saturday’s Happy Hour practice. Forced into a backup car, Gordon had to start from the rear and could only make it up so far before — surprise — another wreck happened in front of him. Trying to avoid teammate Johnson, he slammed into the back of rookie Jeb Burton and wound up a disappointing 18th.

“I thought [Burton] was doing it to let me go by him and I didn’t realize until right at that moment when my spotter said something to me that Jimmie was having a problem; and I ran into the back of him,” he said. “I just can’t believe the way these days are going.”

OVERDRIVE

Edwards and Kahne made contact in a wreck that ruined potential top-5 days for both drivers. Edwards took fault for the incident, one in which he ran the No. 5 car into the turn 4 wall. Both drivers remain without a top-5 finish this season… Brian Vickers was 15th in his first race since returning from offseason heart surgery. That finish alone left him with more points than Stewart has accumulated all year… Subs David Ragan and Regan Smith have yet to record top-10 finishes in substitute roles for the Busch Brothers.

— 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 tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.