Kevin Harvick dominated the race at Phoenix, leading 224 of 312 laps while dealing with perhaps one minor challenge (Jamie McMurray) en route to the checkered flag. That, in itself was expected as Harvick has now won four races in a row out in the desert, a record for the one-mile facility. It’s hard to be a groundbreaking story when everyone expects you to win.
Instead, we leave Phoenix focused on a bit of closure to one of the sport’s big stories to start the year: Kurt Busch. Busch, who was fifth in his return to the sport Sunday, was reinstated one week after he was cleared of criminal charges in a domestic violence case. While a Delaware County Commissioner has still issued a protective order against Busch, keeping him away from ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, prosecutors felt there was not enough evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” to press forward with the more serious charges.
Immediately, the reinstatement put Busch on the offensive, looking to put his final stamp on the conflict through an interview with FOX Sports. “Domestic abuse is a serious issue,” he said. “The worst problem with that is when you’re falsely accused of it.”
Busch, who remains Chase eligible after NASCAR granted a waiver forgiving his suspension that kept him out of the first three races, was then asked if he’s made any mistakes along the way.
“Not changing the code on my motorhome door,” he said, referencing that September night in which Driscoll claimed he banged her head against the wall multiple times. “And frankly, choosing the wrong woman to date. It’s been... not just a tough five months but a tough three-and-a-half years.”
With the issues surrounding the case national news, it kept Harvick’s win off the front pages. Much was made of that distraction, as those within the sport seem to be breathing a sigh of relief that now we can focus on the racing at hand. But honestly? I take a different approach. The Busch case kept eyes on the sport during a three-week stretch where there hasn’t been much competition. Harvick, and Jimmie Johnson have combined to dominate Atlanta, Vegas, and Phoenix.
The new rules package, still a work in progress has been enough of a disappointment NASCAR is rushing their 2016 changes to be tested under race settings as soon as Charlotte’s All-Star Weekend in May. The lone rookie candidate, Jeb Burton, has yet to finish within striking distance of the lead lap and the current Chase field is littered with familiar faces.
Other years, that would have left half the fan base falling asleep. Instead, the Busch brothers’ saga (Kyle Busch was injured at Daytona) has kept some interest aflame and extra eyes on the sport regardless of the actual racing. Now, we head to Fontana this weekend, a place that’s produced plenty of passing in recent years and one of the circuit’s best intermediates. It’s the right time for the cameras to turn back to on-track action, leaving the Busch case behind at perhaps the best possible time.
Time to close the book and go Through The Gears...
FIRST GEAR: Harvick Heads Toward Record Territory
In this case, the numbers alone really do tell the story. Harvick has four top-2 finishes to start the season, a record last matched by Richard Petty in 1974. Dating back to 2014, Phoenix was his seventh straight top-2 result, a victory that locks in a Chase bid and keeps him on top of the point standings by 22 over his nearest challenger. The rest of Stewart-Haas Racing may be a step behind, but so is the field.
“I think at this point, everybody just expects you to keep winning,” Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers said Sunday. “That's what makes it hard on all of us. Yeah, I feel like we've got a team that can do that. We have a driver that can do that. We have the resources to do that.”
They also have the next 22 races to do that with minimal repercussions. Staying inside the top 30 in points, as long as Harvick attempts to qualify every week is a certainty; it would take a catastrophic series of DNFs to strip momentum from the program. From this point on, Harvick can take on a more aggressive attitude each week, a “wreckers or checkers” attitude that could lead to a large number of race wins. After all, who cares if you’re leading the points in September with the new Chase format? All that matters is that you’re prepared to go through it.
SECOND GEAR: Newman Makes His Move
While the Richard Childress Racing satellite teams have been solid, placing two cars within the top 5 in points (Martin Truex, Jr. and AJ Allmendinger) the main ones have been a step behind. However, Phoenix is one of the best tracks for Ryan Newman, last year’s championship runner-up, and he led the way Sunday for this group. Posting a third-place finish while getting better throughout the entire race, he’s now got two straight top-5 finishes to jump up to eighth in the standings.
“We’re knocking on the door,” he said after the race. “That’s two Top 3s in a row. But it was a good points day. We’re four races in and we’ve got two Top 5s. It took us until June last year to get our first one. We’ll keep digging.”
Newman now has a 7.0 average finish at this track since joining RCR in 2014. Just as pertinent were the performance of his teammates, Paul Menard and Austin Dillon who ran inside the top 15 after rollercoaster starts to the season. After relying on consistency to make the Chase last year, could this organization collect some wins this season instead?
THIRD GEAR: Wrecks, Wrecks and More Wrecks
A variety of right-rear tire failures combined with some weird situations on Sunday led to seven wrecks, a season high. One of the more bizarre incidents included a hard crash on Lap 1 by Brian Vickers, whose spotter appeared to misjudge Johnson behind him. He wound up behind the wall, later joined by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart as the outside wall of PIR got an uncharacteristic amount of work.
“You can’t wear out the tire,” said Earnhardt, who refused to blame Goodyear for the blown right rear that caused his problems. “You have to get your car handling better.”
Vickers and Stewart were the big losers on the day, both of whom are sitting a whopping 69 points behind Greg Biffle for the last spot in the Chase. It’s becoming clear quickly either one will have to win a race in order to stand a chance of making the postseason field.
FOURTH GEAR: New Asphalt, Old Problem?
Phoenix, the shortest track NASCAR’s raced on to date has spent the last three-plus years trying to wear down new pavement. While Harvick likes it, taking the track by storm, side-by-side battles have yet to improve. We’ve seen a lot of single-file, parade-style spreading of the field after restarts and no more than 25 lead changes in any race since the repave. (Sunday’s race had just eight). Compare that to the Feb. 2011 race before the new pavement, won by Jeff Gordon with 28 switches up front.
Most of the comments after the race focused on track position. It’s becoming one of the most negative words you can hear in this sport; if you need it, then you know you can’t pass and that’s a problem.
Kasey Kahne scored a fourth-place finish in his 400th career start in the sport. “I’m hoping to get 400 more,” he said afterwards and is well on his way… the driver sits a solid fourth in the points… Martin Truex Jr. now has four straight top-10 finishes to start the season for the first time in three years. It’s the best start to a season for the one-car team he drives for, Furniture Row Racing since 2005… Kurt Busch, fifth in his return already has more points in one race than owner/teammate Stewart has in four. Time to sound the alarm with the No. 14 team… Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ran 12th for Roush Fenway Racing, his best finish of the season but his organization as a whole continues to struggle. No RFR driver sits inside the top 15 in points.
— 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.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.