Judging by garage chatter and practice speeds at Phoenix International Raceway there was really no doubt that Kevin Harvick was the driver to beat in what turned out to be the aptly named “The Profit on CNBC 500” … that, of course, if the spelling of the race sponsor were “Prophet.”
Regardless, Harvick and his new No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team was far and away the strongest bunch in the desert after a speedy NASCAR Speedweeks in Daytona, winning in just their second race together.
Harvick led a race-high 224 of 312 laps — after topping the speed charts in Friday and Saturday practice sessions — and commandingly held off a top 5 that consisted of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Jeff Gordon over four restarts in the final 61 laps to notch his first Cup win in a car not owned by Richard Childress.
“This just solidifies some many things — so many decisions,” Harvick said of his defection from Richard Childress Racing, where he had spent his entire 13-year Cup career, to good friend Tony Stewart’s team. While driver of the No. 29 Chevy at RCR, the Bakersfield, Calif., native garnered 23 wins in the Sprint Cup Series, including the 2007 Daytona 500, 2003 Brickyard 400 and two victories in the Coca-Cola 600 (2011, 2013).
Harvick was the cause of a final-turn crash in last weekend’s Daytona 500, where he placed 13th, but had no such dramatics in Phoenix. Harvick took the lead for the first time on lap 74 on Sunday and surrendered it for only 15 circuits over the remainder of the afternoon. Try as they might in the final four restarts of the race, the competitors were mostly resigned to be racing for second.
“We were a little faster at the end, but (Harvick was) stellar,” said Earnhardt, who followed up his Daytona 500 win with a second-place finish in Phoenix. “Those guys were two-tenths (of a second) faster than anybody all weekend in practice. They were just phenomenal. To be able to run with them as we did all day was a big confidence builder for us.”
It was Harvick’s third win at PIR in the circuit’s last four visits and fifth overall.
“The back of Kevin’s car says ‘Freaky Fast’ and they weren’t lying!” said Logano, referring to Harvick’s Jimmy John’s sponsorship decals. “Such a fast car — he’s got something figured out here.”
Thus far, Harvick’s 2014 showing has resembled Matt Kenseth’s 2013 performance as a driver who jumped to a new team after earning tenure elsewhere over the first 13 years of his Cup career. Kenseth left Roush Fenway Racing following the 2012 season and enjoyed a career year last season, registering seven wins and a runner-up points showing with Joe Gibbs Racing.
“They were really prepared,” third-place finisher Brad Keselowski said of Harvick’s team in the offseason. “We saw it all the way through testing, that they were dominant. They showed it when they came to the actual racetrack to race.
“I would look for big things out of that team. They looked a lot like the 20 car (Kenseth) did last year at this time. They have that honeymoon syndrome going on and taking full advantage of it.”
If there were one team besides RCR where Harvick would seem a natural fit, it’s SHR, which is co-owned by his good friend, Stewart.
“It wasn't that I couldn't be a part of the championship before, it's just that we hadn't won a championship before,” Harvick said. “We do this to win. You want to win races. We've been fortunate to do that in the past, but in this arena it's about winning championships and trying to be competitive on a weekly basis. I felt like I needed that enthusiasm to show up to work. I get to do this with a lot of my friends, with Tony.
“As we’ve gone through time, I've sat and talked with Tony about what's expected. He expects me and Rodney (Childers, crew chief) to help lead the charge on the competition side as to what needs to be the direction.”
Meanwhile, Earnhardt and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports bunch seem poised to make crew chief Steve Letarte’s final season with the team — he’ll abandon pit box duties at the end of the year — a successful one. Earnhardt’s first- and second-place showings in the season’s first two races signify the best start of his 16-year Cup career.
“Our team is performing so well — got a lot of great chemistry and good communication going back and forth,” Earnhardt said. “Everybody's confidence is very high. Everybody's mood and morale is really high. Hopefully we can maintain that and not have any bad luck or make any mistakes and continue to keep working towards winning more races.
“If we run second enough, we're bound to at least trip into one or two. We ran second quite a few races in the last 10 or so (last season). I feel really good. I feel like we're coming around the corner, peaking at the right time this season to try to run for the championship.”