Who’s in the headline – Kevin Harvick is starting off the 2015 season in dominating fashion – the first person since Richard Petty in 1974 to start off a season with four straight top-two finishes. Sunday’s victory was his seventh straight, dating back to 2014 and is also second only to The King all-time. Harvick is the first driver to score two wins this season, which is what he did last year as well. That locks him into the Chase, now sure to have a shot to defend his title.
What happened – Joey Logano grabbed the lead from Harvick at the drop of the green and led the first 25 laps of the event. From there, it was Kevin Harvick for the next 93 laps. Brad Keselowski used pit strategy to get out in front off of the fourth caution of the event and held off Harvick for 52 laps. Harvick then led 18 before Logano made another strategy play to grab the lead again. He kept Harvick at bay for 10 laps before the eventual winner jumped back to the point for 96 more laps; it was mostly smooth sailing down the stretch. On the penultimate restart of the race, Jamie McMurray beat Harvick to the line and was given credit for leading lap 295. That advantage was short lived as Harvick regained the lead and walked away for his second straight victory. 10 caution flags slowed the race, seven of which were for incidents with competitors… but it felt like the outcome was never in doubt.
Why you should care – Kevin Harvick was the fastest car for much of last season but had quite a few problems getting his cars to the finish of races. The team is now making it to checkered flags consistently and the result is domination by the defending champion. It took Harvick 14 years to win a title but, at the moment he is undoubtedly the man to beat if someone else wants to try and win it in 2015. Ryan Newman, still nursing a two-year victory drought, took a step toward the form that brought him to second place in the championship in 2014. Kasey Kahne crossed the line in fourth for his first top five since he won his way into the Chase in 2014. Finally, Kurt Busch showed that he should be taken seriously now that he is back in the seat with a run that was second-best to Harvick when the money was on the line, although a pit call left him with just a fifth-place finish.
What Friends Are Talking About – Kurt Busch was reinstated by NASCAR and was back in the car on Sunday. After the legal pundits in Delaware decided he was not going to face charges for his accused domestic violence, Busch moved from indefinite suspension to indefinite probation. He is still subject to his participation in a treatment program and full compliance with any judicial requirements placed upon him. NASCAR also declared that he is eligible to make the Chase if he is able to qualify. The bottom line is that, short of bitch-slapping Brian France during pre-race intros, just about anyone can be eligible to make the Chase as long as they try and make every race that they can enter and are still breathing. NASCAR claims they learn something from everything they have to deal with in the sport. Well, I’m not sure what they learned from this one but hopefully they have a better understanding of innocent until proven guilty.
John Cohen, the owner of Team Xtreme Racing, is facing a bench warrant in New Jersey for failing to comply with a settlement that he made with investors in a nightclub that never opened. Cohen insists that nothing involved with the warrant will impact the operation of his race team but, in an amazing coincidence, the warrant was issued the exact same day as the team’s racecar disappeared from a hotel parking lot in Georgia. While it is 2015, the stories and accusations surrounding this case are the stuff that NASCAR used to have frequently in the early years when the corporate money wasn’t what kept the teams going. That, or a day in the life of Jennifer Jo Cobb and Mike Harmon…
RAB Racing withdrew from the race at Phoenix after the first three races this season saw them fail to qualify. They are taking a step back to regroup before heading to Fontana since that is the race closest to Toyota USA’s headquarters. With them dropping back to a part-time schedule it will be interesting to see if NASCAR will issue a Chase waiver for Reed Sorenson when he wins a race.
Tony Stewart expanded his racing empire more this week with a finalization of his purchase of the All-Star Circuit of Champions racing series. The 410 Sprint Car series is one of the oldest touring series in the country and was the first to sanction “Outlaw” sprint car races. While Stewart has said it will be some time, if ever, before he jumps back into a sprint car to race again, he continues to give back to the local short track racing levels that are so crucial in bringing people up in the sport.
NASCAR has informed race teams that they can face a 15-minute practice penalty if their cars fail to make it through pre-qualifying inspection in two passes. Teams have to push the edge of the envelope in order to try and get every thousandth of a second of speed out of their racecars, but they also need to be more realistic about passing tech. NASCAR gives the teams tolerances, which are designed to allow them to miss a small amount after preparing their cars to the rules in the rulebook. Unfortunately, the teams build them to the edge of the tolerances, not the specifications in the rules. It is understandable that a team might miss it on the first pass but making multiple passes through tech while trying to stay on the upper or lowermost limit of the rules is unacceptable. Provided the laser measuring system is consistent, which is up for debate if you speak to crew chiefs, then the teams need to start pulling it back from the edge a little bit.
Three races into the 2015 season and NASCAR is already planning changes for the rules in 2016. During a test at Charlotte Motor Speedway this week, the teams tried out an updated rules package that the sanctioning body is considering for next season. Richard Buck, the director of the Sprint Cup Series, received so much positive feedback from the crew chiefs and teams that the series is considering running it for the All-Star Race in May. The series can tweak their rules all season long if they’d like, but until they get these cars off of the ground they are never going to get away from the leader having an enormous advantage.
Speaking of rules changes, starting next week the cars will be backed into the stalls on pit road for qualifying instead of pulled in. Congratulations to the decision makers who finally figured out that was a good idea.
It is with a heavy heart we say Godspeed to Ron Lemasters Sr. The longtime sports writer from Muncie, Ind. passed away on March 9 after suffering a stroke at the end of February. Lemasters spent much of his career contributing to the Muncie Star. He was the sports editor for the Muncie paper from 1982 through 1999, when he retired. He also wrote extensively for the National Speed Sport News, becoming a fixture around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and was a member of the Indianapolis 500 Old Timer’s Association. He was an influential part of the news bureau for IMS for the last 17 years. He was twice voted sportswriter of the year by the Indiana Sportswriter and Sportscasters Association. He is not only a member of that association’s Hall of Fame along with the Mid-American Conference Hall of Fame for his coverage of Ball State University. Enjoy your new beat, Mr. Lemasters; we know the news reporting in heaven just went up another notch.
Who is mad – Brian Vickers is finally back in the seat of a racecar after another health issue. He started at Vegas with a 15th-place finish as the first car one lap down last week. This weekend, he was in the 18th starting position and never had a chance to get into a rhythm before Jimmie Johnson drilled him in the back bumper at the start/finish line and turned him hard into the outside wall. Vickers did make it back out into the race, but he was 81 laps down when he rejoined and finished the race in the 41st position.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was very loose all day long. During a long green-flag run he abused the right rear so badly from the condition that the bead on the tire melted and the tire went down. Before he could make it all of the way back to the garage the right rear on the car caught fire and Earnhardt had to bail out of the car. After taking the car behind the wall the team retired it for the day. The end result a 43rd-place finish and a fond farewell to the second place position in points.
Stewart has been struggling this year trying to get his arms wrapped around this new rules package. He’s also had some terrible luck. This weekend wasn’t any better. He finally looked to be having a good run until he tried to pull his car down hard in turn four to keep it off of Justin Allgaier. He ended up spinning and damaging the right front. He followed that spin with a blown right-front tire with 27 laps to go which put an end to his day. Smoke can’t get to Martinsville soon enough.
Who is happy – Kurt Busch started the weekend happy since he was finally able to get back into a racecar. He followed that up with a great race, chasing his teammate for much of the event. He made a move to the pits when Stewart had his issue and put right-side tires on. He gained five positions after the pit stop but that was four too few as he came home in the fifth spot. With his deficit in points, Busch is looking to win a race at this point to make the Chase. Martinsville isn’t far away and Busch has won there recently.
Landon Cassill wasn’t running for the win on Sunday but he was the winner when it came to Lucky Dogs. Cassill received the first three Lucky Dogs that were awarded during the event. Cassill finished the race on the lead lap in 22nd position.
When the checkered flag flew
Harvick scored his 30th win of his career in his 506th Cup start. The victory was the seventh of his career at Phoenix International Raceway. Harvick is still 23rd on the all-time wins list in the Cup series. He is one behind Matt Kenseth for 22nd and three behind Fireball Roberts for 20th on the list. Harvick has four consecutive victories at Phoenix. The last driver to accomplish that feat was Johnson at Charlotte in 2004-05. Harvick surpassed the 1,000 laps led barrier at Phoenix during the race on Sunday. That is the most among all drivers. Johnson is second on that list.
McMurray scored his first runner-up finish since Kentucky in 2013. It is his second top two since then having won at Talladega in the fall of 2013. It is McMurray’s 10th career top-two finish which ties him with Clint Bowyer, Keselowski and Jeremy Mayfield for 62nd on the all-time list.
Newman came home in third for the second consecutive race. It is his fifth career podium finish at PIR. Newman has 48 career top-three runs, which is tied with Greg Biffle for 48th on the all-time list.
Jeb Burton came home in 34th to claim the Rookie of the Race honors.
The margin of victory was 1.153 seconds.
Average speed of the event was 105.753 mph.
27 cars finished on the lead lap and 41 of 43 cars were running at the finish.
Harvick puts a second win in the books and punches his ticket to the 2015 Chase provided he is still able to climb behind the wheel in September.
The two drivers who have an inside track to the Chase by virtue of winning a race already this season are: Logano and Johnson.
The remaining 13 drivers who are eligible for the Chase based on their current points position are:
Taking it to the Bank – Cup winners this year have pocketed $2,612,259, while the last-place finisher has taken home $464,700. Earnhardt’s 43rd-place finish actually helped the last-place pool as Michael Annett only earned $52,255 for 42nd compared to Junior’s $68,155.
In the Xfinity Series, it has been $364,810 for the winners and $74,686 for last place.
After two Truck races, the winner has $137,089 and the last loser has banked $21,153.
What is in the cooler – Phoenix is the short track that thinks it is a big track. It did live up to one big-track characteristic for sure; the leader is almost unbeatable still, even with the new rules package. As long as the car at the point could make it to the exit of turn 2 with the point, he was all but guaranteed to hang onto it. While the battling in the pack was good, once again the action at the front of the pack was even worse than we’ve seen in the past. The amount of racing in the pack wasn’t able to help salvage this one, which results in a rating of two lukewarm Old World Nitro Blondes.
Where do you point your DV-R for next week – The “West Coast Swing” wraps up in Fontana, California next weekend with 200 laps around the 2-mile oval. The track used to be home to the worst racing in the sport but the last few years, it has been one of the two or three best races. Unless they repaved it without telling anyone, we should be in for another great race. You can see it on FOX at 3:30 ET. You can also hear the dulcet tones of the MRN gang describe the action on your local affiliate or NASCAR SiriusXM radio channel 90.