When you think of Daytona, you think Dale Earnhardt. Dover? Jimmie Johnson. Phoenix?
The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet has been so good at Phoenix in recent years that one might think that the small entry list this weekend stemmed from his dominance. And while that isn’t actually the case, most drivers are heading into Avondale with the mindset that the best they can hope for is a good points day.
Because, unless Harvick blows an engine, that’s all they can really hope for, right?
Or … maybe things aren’t so bleak for the rest of the field. Maybe there’s a chance someone other than Harvick takes the checkered flag first. Will Harvick be in victory lane for the eighth time at PIR this weekend?
All Good Things Must Come to an End
Phoenix is around the corner? Man, Harvick must be giddy. After all, he’s won there seven times in his career and four of the last five races. He’s dominated in laps led and averages a 10.6 finish.
That’s the good news. The bad news? Past results don’t guarantee future performance. And there are a handful of drivers nipping at Harvick’s heels.
Here’s a fun fact for you: Since 2001, who has the best average finish at PIR? Not Harvick. It’s Johnson – who averages a 7.7 finish. Six-Time isn’t that far off from Harvick’s laps led count either. Johnson has led 977 to Harvick’s 1,345. And Johnson has four more top 5s and top 10s than Happy, despite starting in one fewer race.
So Johnson is one driver that Harvick will have to deal with this weekend. Another is Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Remember that it was Junior who snookered Harvick out of a win in last fall’s rain-shortened win at Phoenix, and the driver of the No. 88 has five top-8 finishes in the last six races. Like Johnson, Earnhardt has this new low-downforce package down and will be a player as the laps wind down. A win would be his fourth at the track.
But it’s not just the Hendrick brigade that Harvick has to worry about. He’ll face stiff competition from the Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano (a combined 12 top-11 finishes in the previous seven races) and SHR teammate Kurt Busch (four top-7 finishes in the last five races and could have won last spring if not for pit strategy hurting them). Throw in defending Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch (with three top-5 finishes this season) and Harvick will have his hands full.
But more than anyone else, Harvick’s toughest competition will be himself. For as good as the No. 4 team has been since it was established in 2014, the team has shot themselves in the foot more times than a clumsy hunter. Harvick started well at Texas in 2014 and Pocono in 2015, leading laps in both races before his engine died in the first 30 laps of both events.
Harvick was on his way to wins at Watkins Glen and Loudon last season before running out of gas with just laps remaining. While he was able to coast to a third-place finish at the Glen, he dropped to 21st at New Hampshire.
Since 2014, Harvick has failed to win 10 races in which he led 100+ laps, including dominating performances at Dover, Bristol, twice at Loudon, a handful of 1.5-mile tracks and last fall at Phoenix.
Oh, and how about all those second-place finishes? I count 19 of them since 2014. For a driver known as the Closer, he sure can’t complete the deal all that often. Will that be the case this weekend at Phoenix? I suspect it will.
One Word: Duh.
I’m not going to lie, arguing that Kevin Harvick will win at Phoenix International Raceway might be the easiest writing task I’ve ever been given.
I mean, come on, even fans of other drivers are afraid to pick against him.
As I was driving home on Wednesday night, I decided to listen to Dave Moody’s SiriusXM Speedway on the radio. During the typical round of call-ins, a familiar name, known exclusively for bringing up Kyle Busch in any possible circumstance, decided to call in for the show.
Can you guess what his choice for topic of the day was?
Look, no one is guaranteed a win at any time. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has proven that from both sides with Harvick at Phoenix last fall (thanks to the rain), and with the crashed ‘Amelia’ at Daytona International Speedway last month. However, racing’s rarely – if ever – had a safer pick than Harvick in Arizona over the last four years.
Let’s just look at the stats for a second. Harvick has won five out of eight races at the 1.022-mile oval since 2012. The three other races have yielded two runner-up performances and a 13th-place result. The circumstances surrounding the wins have varied greatly, but whether there was little at stake (hello, lame-duck 2013 win with Richard Childress Racing) or everything (‘Happy’ needed the fall 2014 win to take the title), Harvick’s always risen to the occasion.
The dominance has only increased in Harvick’s two seasons with Stewart-Haas Racing. The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has led an incredible 855 of the 1155 laps at the Phoenix, Arizona since 2014. That’s just a shade under 75% of all laps, for the math junkies out there.
Oh, and Harvick also won three of those four races. The only one he lost, last fall, he had on lock until Earnhardt stole the lead on pit road and the heavens opened up.
In all, seven of Harvick’s 31 career victories come from Phoenix. He may not have won at the track from 2007-2011, but he’s been as close to a sure thing as NASCAR has since the Gen 6 cars debuted in 2013.
If the low-downforce package doesn’t drastically change the racing on Sunday, look for Harvick to make his way to victory lane once more.