The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at ISM Raceway, formerly known as Phoenix…

1. It’s Harvick’s world, we’re just living in it

Kevin Harvick is destroying everyone right now, which is reminiscent of his first two years at Stewart-Haas Racing. I’m not sure there’s much more to add after his performances the last two weeks, except now instead of a happy Happy, he’s the old fired-up and feisty bull after his team’s penalty last week.

Harvick showed up at Phoenix in a fighting mood. He brought a paper with talking points into the media center on Friday and cut off the moderator when a benign question was posed to start the session.

“Nobody wants to talk about that,” he said. “Let’s just go to the first question.”

Then, and in each successive interview throughout the weekend — including on FOX and FS1 before the race — he threw out jabs at NASCAR execs, social media, his team’s doubters. After the win, he patted the rear window of his car and “thanked it,” as he put it — not exactly the most subtle sign after this week’s penalty. He capped it off by saluting the “haters” in victory lane.

It was vintage Harvick, and he seems to shine in those situations. Though he’s mellowed compared to his younger years, Harvick seems happiest when there’s an enemy to battle — even if it’s an invisible one. He even acknowledged it was a positive when former crew chief Gil Martin used to get him angry on purpose.

“Everybody just came here mad, chip on their shoulder, wanting to do exactly what we did today,” Harvick said. “Parking that thing in victory is the most powerful message you can send.”

Harvick said Phoenix “felt like a playoff moment” and seemed more important than winning a race at Homestead. He loves when the controversy is swirling and he can succeed in the center of the storm.

It energizes him. He thrives off it.

“Those are the moments you love to live in,” he said. “You can’t even explain them unless you’re a part of them, because they’re just so rewarding.”

2. No slowing down

Where does it end? Heading to Fontana next week, where Harvick won in 2011 and has finished second twice in the last three years, he could certainly win again.

“Oh, I put a lot of emphasis on California,” Harvick said. “Racing at your home track … yeah. I’m excited about it.”

Rodney Childers said based on Harvick running well at worn-out tracks, it leaves the team highly optimistic. Fontana is the only surface in NASCAR older than Atlanta.

So the mission for four straight is alive and well, and that’s an achievement that has only happened once in the last 20 years. Jimmie Johnson was the last driver to go four in a row, doing it in the fall of 2007 to wrap up his second title.

Harvick is a long way from a title — it’s still just four races into the season, and he only has 11 playoff points to show for himself after losing seven in the penalty last week. But it’s obviously a pretty good sign the No. 4 team could be this year’s 78 team.

The other contenders don’t seem to think Harvick is that far ahead of them, though, despite the wins.

“We’ve got a little work to do, but man, we’re right there,” Martin Truex Jr. told me. “It’s like when you’re out fishing. You feel like you’re throwing the right lure, but maybe it just ain’t the right color. You’re just not quite dialed in. We’re so close.”

3. The challengers

Aside from Harvick’s dominance, the running order was quite revealing on Sunday.

All five Joe Gibbs Racing family cars (the four JGR drivers plus Truex) finished in the top 10, as did all four Stewart-Haas Racing cars. The only other car in the top 10 was Chase Elliott, who finished third.

Tony Stewart said this is the best SHR has ever been running from top to bottom. At Atlanta, when all four drivers were running in the top seven at one point, Stewart was so excited that he took a screenshot of his TV screen.

“I don’t think there’s any question about (SHR being the strongest it’s ever been),” he said. “It just shows the strength of having four really good teammates that are giving four valid sets of information that they can all feed off of and work off of.  … It’s nice to look on the board and see all four cars in the top 10. That’s a proud moment.”

So are the best teams JGR/Furniture Row and SHR right now?

No one is ready to say that quite yet.

“Everybody hasn’t been home home yet to really work on their stuff,” Truex said. “There’s still a lot to do and a lot to see.”

“It’s too small of a sample size,” Hamlin said. “We need to get four or five more weeks in to see who has got the consistent speed. Obviously, there’s one car (Harvick) that has got that consistent speed. The 18 is right there behind him and we’re probably falling in right behind that.”

4. Try again next week

While it was a solid day for many of the drivers you’d expect to see up at the top of the running order, the same can’t be said for some of the other contenders.

Kyle Larson wasn’t much of a factor following the early part of the race, when he led 54 laps, and finished a disappointing 18th after spinning out at one point. Teammate Jamie McMurray, who started eighth and looked to have a good weekend going in practice, struggled to make the finish with what he felt like was a gremlin in the car; he finished 26th, two laps down.

Meanwhile, the Team Penske cars faded after showing some promise by running in the top 10 for much of the race; Brad Keselowski finished 15th after his pit strategy didn’t pan out, Ryan Blaney was 16th and Joey Logano was 19th (after finishing second in Stage 1).

And aside from Elliott leading the way for Hendrick Motorsports, the rest of that group was 12th-13th-14th (William Byron-Alex Bowman-Jimmie Johnson).

5. Veterans still getting it done

Daytona got everyone pumped for the youth wave, but the results haven’t been there yet for the most part.

Just take a look at the standings: Ryan Blaney is fifth, Kyle Larson is eighth and Austin Dillon is 12th. But everyone else in the top 14 in the points has at least nine years of Cup experience.

That will likely change with time, but it’s fascinating to watch the veterans shine each week after there has been so much hype (and marketing –right, Kyle Busch?) regarding the young guns.

9 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix race”

  1. Harvick the elitist thinks his crap doesn’t stink. Rules are rules bud! Last week your car was illegal.

  2. I love it, the sport averages out , as the season goes on, as a Ford fan , we don’t get a chance to see it too often, we have been subject to a lifetime of Hendricks dominance, so back off

  3. I love it, the sport averages out , as the season goes on, as a Ford fan , we don’t get a chance to see it too often, we have been subject to a lifetime of Hendricks dominance, so back off

  4. I think Dover had the oldest track surface in NASCAR. Went to concrete between 1994-95. Unless we’re just counting asphalt tracks.

  5. I don’t have a horse in the race…. my driver retired…. but I do love a race… even one that isn’t so good; however, today’s race was great. For the most part the race was well covered by Fox camerapersons. Loved that many views covered a multitude of race cars.

  6. Harvick seemed quite emotional in victory lane, like mad/sad/angry. Unfortunately because of playoffs, early consistency doesn’t mean anything for the title, so take it as it is, just a few wins (still three in a row is great). If he or SHR can win next weekend then they’ll show they really have their programs running well. Responding to the penalty, right or wrong, was needed. It gave them motivation and it showed. Through the weekend they knew they’d get it done when it matters.

  7. I enjoy the Harvick remarks.He is just telling all they better work harder to catch the 4 team.Makes it interesting to me.I want to see who will pick up the pace now.

  8. I like a fired up Harvick. It’s good for us viewers/fans and it is good for the sport.

    The early season trends are dangerous to latch on to. You know how that can change, Jeff, you’ve watched the sport for years. If Hendrick gets back to their shops after this swing and finds something, third, twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth will become top fives and wins. Penske hasn’t been all that sharp since last year either, and you know Roger won’t stand for that for very long. I suspect that we will be talking about other teams doing well later into the Summer, but you never know. That’s why they race, right?

    I agree with “betty coleman” above that Fox did a good job showing more cars throughout the field and there was a lot of side by side racing with some good, multi-lap battles going on until late when it seemed that everyone remembered this was Phoenix and it wasn’t supposed to be like that.

  9. I definitely fall in old guys (though I’m a woman) category, so you would think I’d be rooting for the veterans but I’m not. I can’t wait for the young guns to start kicking butts and taking names ????. Go get’em Chase, YRB, Bubba, Yung Money, William, Alex, Daniel, Erik, Austin, Ty……

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