What’s that NASCAR was saying about young guns? Kevin Harvick has shown thus far in 2018 old dogs aren’t ready to learn new tricks just yet. Two dominating Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series performances the past two weeks have the 42-year-old front and center as this year’s championship favorite.
So far, Harvick has led an impressive 49.2 percent of all MENCS laps run this season. Keep in mind that’s including a Daytona 500 where he wrecked halfway through the event. Now, we had to ISM Raceway in Phoenix, his best track, a place where Harvick’s earned a track-record eight victories. The one-mile oval could deliver the 2014 Cup Series champion three wins in the first four races of 2018.
It’s a feat we haven’t seen accomplished since Bill Elliott did it way back in 1992. No, that’s not a misprint; it’s Chase Elliott’s dad. The young Hendrick Motorsports driver wasn’t even born when Awesome Bill from Dawsonville celebrated his new ride with the old Junior Johnson No. 11 by taking four of the first five events on the Cup circuit.
There’s a crack in the armor, though this week that served as a reminder Harvick isn’t invincible. A failed rear window support brace at Las Vegas, site of his last win led to a $50,000 fine for Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers. It’s also caused the suspension of car chief Robert Smith from the next two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series events.
The penalty comes with a loss of 20 driver and owner points for the regular season. However, it’s those seven playoff points knocked off the ledger that really irk Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing. In a format where Martin Truex Jr. virtually clinched a spot in NASCAR’s final four during the regular season, Harvick’s eight-point edge on the field through three races was already looking like a formidable total.
At least those points didn’t go to someone else. But Harvick has to dig deep and not let the outside drama bother him at Phoenix. We’ll also find out quickly if NASCAR found them hitting on a gray area they’ll pull back from. Previous penalties surrounding race wins or early season dominating performances (see: Joey Logano at Richmond in 2017, Team Penske in ‘13, etc.) threw otherwise championship-level teams off their game.
And while Harvick could match Elliott’s record, he won’t want to follow that same path long-term. The sizzling 1992 start for Awesome Bill ended with a runner-up slot in the title chase to Alan Kulwicki.
14th TicketGuardian 500(K)
Time: Sunday, March 11 at 3:45 p.m. ET
Track: ISM Raceway (Phoenix)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Stewart-Haas Racing
Kevin Harvick has led the way but four-car SHR has all of its drivers in playoff position thus far. Aric Almirola, despite losing a last-lap battle for a Daytona 500 victory, has impressed in Danica Patrick’s old ride. He’s earned three straight top-15 finishes right off the bat; it took Danica 19 races last season just to reach the same total.
Further back, Clint Bowyer has had a reasonable start that included his first top-5 finish at a 1.5-mile track since Homestead over four years ago. And Kurt Busch? Despite crashing out in two of the first three races he’s showed some of the same front-running speed (68 laps led) as Harvick.
Who’s at the Back: William Byron
He came into the Cup Series as arguably the most highly-touted rookie since Chase Elliott and perhaps even Joey Logano a decade ago. But Byron, a teenage talent who romped through the sport’s Camping World Truck and XFINITY series, is finding the Cup level a tough go.
Byron wrecked in the Daytona 500, causing a late caution that set up Austin Dillon’s win. The next two weeks have seen him virtually invisible, runs of 18th and 27th that leave the driver squarely behind Darrell Wallace Jr. in the MENCS Rookie of the Year race.
Byron’s stumbling start comes in New York Yankees-level equipment at Hendrick Motorsports, though so don’t get too despondent just yet. We’ll see where we are in a month or so.
See above re: Kevin Harvick’s penalty on the rear window following Las Vegas. At press time, Stewart-Haas Racing was still evaluating their options on appeal. Team vice president Greg Zipadelli claimed in a Wednesday night statement the team would continue to talk with NASCAR in order to “fully understand the rationale” behind the penalty.
In an interesting twist, Matt DiBenedetto went to social media this week to explain his No. 32 Go FAS Racing car was without Cup Series-level sponsorship for Phoenix. Within 24 hours, Zynga Poker signed a one-race deal. In it, the company fully admitted it was made aware of both NASCAR and the opportunity through this Twitter push. With money in racing still tight in a GoFundMe era, could this method of seeking sponsorship gain momentum?
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by defending Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. through three races this season. Last year, he led a series-high 2,253.
Cup wins for Kevin Harvick since moving over to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. By comparison, he had 23 Cup wins with Richard Childress Racing from 2001-13.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Harvick, Harvick, Harvick. Whatever the cost this weekend, it’s totally worth it. He has a career average finish of 9.7 at ISM Raceway (Phoenix), those track-record eight wins and hasn’t run lower than sixth there in his time at SHR.
Don’t forget about Kyle Larson as a dark-horse, top-tier pick despite the early struggles of Chevrolet. Larson, who was dead last here in the fall, was still a contender for the win in that race before his No. 42 blew its engine. Consider the last two Phoenix races before that, he ran second and third. Don’t let him sneak past you.
Erik Jones may have just three Cup starts at Phoenix but he’s made the most of them, scoring two top-10 runs and a career-best fourth at the track last fall. Don’t count him out for the victory now that he’s with a Joe Gibbs Racing team, the No. 20 Toyota that won the race with Matt Kenseth last November.
Jones’ teammate Daniel Suarez is in need of a solid run after an up-and-down start to 2018. The second-year driver was seventh in this event last spring, the best performance he’d had to date replacing Carl Edwards and is well positioned to take his No. 19 Toyota toward the front once again.
Ty Dillon has had a rock bottom-style start with Germain Racing thus far in 2018. At 32nd in the standings, only underfunded Gray Gaulding has accumulated fewer points. But three top-16 finishes at Phoenix, including an 11th last fall offer hope the No. 13 car can start bouncing back this Sunday. Remember, Dillon is part of the Richard Childress Racing alliance that has started so strong across the board after Austin’s Daytona 500 victory.
Paul Menard was in this space last week but it’s hard to get off the No. 21 train. Such strong performances by Menard (sixth, 17th, ninth) and a 15th at Phoenix last fall make it hard to get off until a bad race proves his momentum is reaching a full stop.
What Vegas Thinks
As expected, Kevin Harvick leads the way with 2/1 odds while Kyle Busch is a distant second at 11/2.
What I Think
Harvick. Harvick. Harvick. Count ‘em, three victories in four races to start 2018.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)