ONE: Harvick On Pace For Record-Setting Start
Slaughter, rinse, repeat. For a second straight week, Kevin Harvick laid waste to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field driving a car levels above the competition. Speed, handling, restarts – you name it, Harvick had the edge. Only pit road kept him from leading 240-250 laps; if not for stage three cautions, he could have lapped most of the field.
As it is, just nine cars finished on the lead lap. 14th-place Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? He was two laps behind the leaders! That’s the type of result we expect in 1998, not 2018.
But Harvick’s performance hearkens back to that time, a year Jeff Gordon put the series to shame. While Jimmie Johnson won two of the first three races to start 2010, and Matt Kenseth went two-for-two to start 2009, it’s Gordon’s run 20 years ago that stands out.
Wonder Boy, as he was known at the time, tied a modern-era record with 13 wins while romping to the championship over Mark Martin. Gordon won just once in the first three races but every week, he came to the track with a bulls-eye as the one to beat.
Harvick’s headed in that direction, too, mastering an intermediate setup we saw glimpses of in Texas last November. Remember that daring pass of Martin Truex Jr., then the cookie-cutter king for the win that earned Harvick a Championship 4 bid?
Now, he’s won three of the last four at 1.5-mile ovals and heads to Phoenix in position to win three of four to start the 2018 MENCS season. The Closer couldn’t pick a better track to do it, too; Harvick’s got a track record eight career wins there. Since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, the No. 4 car hasn’t run worse than sixth at the one-mile oval.
The last time a driver won three of four to start the year was Bill Elliott back in 1992. Driving for Junior Johnson, Elliott won five races that year, tied for the series lead with Davey Allison.
But Awesome Bill also finished runner-up in the title chase to Alan Kulwicki. Why? Four of those wins came in the first five races; just one came in the last 24. In a modern NASCAR playoff environment, Elliott would have been down for the count.
So that’s a warning to Harvick’s team; they can’t peak too soon. Pit road problems that nearly haunted them now could break their back in a playoff run. But it’s hard to bet against the No. 4 at the moment. Three races in, he’s made Truex’s dominating title bid last year seem mundane by comparison.
TWO: Logano’s Long Road Back
Who would have guessed three races into 2018 Joey Logano would be the only one with three top-10 finishes? We’re talking about a guy whose only win last season got stripped of its playoff bonus (er, encumbered) and then promptly disappeared from on-track view for oh, about half the year or so.
It took until September 2017 for the No. 22 to emerge with three straight top 10s. It wasn’t enough (Logano missed the postseason) but those final 10 races built the foundation for a solid 2018 start.
“We have OK speed in the car,” he said Sunday after a seventh-place effort. “We aren’t anywhere close to the No. 4 but we are competitive with the rest. We are running hard and running strong right now.
“The strength of the Fords has been nice. Heck yeah. I am excited about it. There are a lot of things that happened in the offseason and rule changes that probably contribute to that. I am proud of the effort that everyone at Ford has been putting into these cars from both the Ford camp and the Team Penske camp. We will keep working hard until we get there.”
To me, they’re already there in an important category they need for the playoffs: actual points. Already, Logano has a 65-point edge on 17th-place Alex Bowman in the standings. That’s over a full race’s worth in case tragedy (or penalties) strike down the road.
At this rate, the No. 22 will crack Victory Lane sooner rather than later. But either way, Logano’s in playoff contention again and that’s good for the sport. Now a ‘tweener, a late 20-something that’s a leader of this young movement, Logano inspires opinions and attitudes among the 40-car field. He’s a love ’em or hate ’em type of guy with true talent, unafraid to mix it up (see: Matt Kenseth) and a perfect foil for Harvick.
Remember this gem?
It’s the type of youngster vs. veteran spat that’ll get people talking. Harvick vs. Logano, round two? Sign us up.
THREE: A Camaro In Crisis
Sure, the new Chevy Camaro ZL1 looks really nice. But on track, the car’s out for a leisurely Sunday drive. It didn’t help Sunday Chase Elliott got collected by Kurt Busch’s mess, but would the No. 9 car have really challenged down the stretch? Chevys led zero – count ’em, zero – laps at Las Vegas while only Kyle Larson (third) cracked the top 10.
It’s gotten so bad for the Bowtie crowd critics are calling Jimmie Johnson’s 12th-place finish promising. Promising?! Johnson’s opponents used to get slapped with that term when they managed to keep the No. 48 from lapping them. Oh, how the mighty have fallen….
Johnson spent the weekend sent to the rear, victim of multiple inspection failures and then trying seemingly all day to stay within striking distance. In the end, he was one lap down but it might as well have been 10 considering how the Fords flew right past him.
Consider there were 17 Chevrolets in the field Sunday. Just one (5.8 percent) finished in the top 10 spots. Only four of them are in playoff position right now and just one (Larson) has any connection to Hendrick Motorsports whatsoever.
Don’t count out the Camaro just yet (see: point one about peaking too soon). But you also can’t fall so far behind the playoffs become an impossibility. Chevy needs to figure this one out, quickly.
FOUR: Throwing Caution To The Wind
Daytona was a wreck-fest. But since then? NASCAR’s races have been far more sedate than sizzling. Just 17 cautions have littered the first three races of the year, tied for the second-fewest in the sport’s playoff era.
The difference here is stage breaks weren’t around the other two times (2004, 2016) the cautions fell this few and far between. The good news is fake debris is now failing to appear; it’s caused just one yellow flag (Daytona) that was legitimate.
But the crashes at these cookie-cutter tracks? They’ve all but disappeared, even on some frenetic three and four-wide restarts. While the racing has been good, Harvick’s dominance considered good car control leads to a dreaded term NASCAR fans hate: predictability.
You don’t want to run to the drugstore for 10 minutes, come back and know Harvick’s gonna lead by five seconds and everyone’s still, well, doing their thing. You want a sudden spin, engine problem, a little rubbing of fenders and a lot more shifting of the field than we’re currently seeing. Clean air, aero push, strung-out race cars? Those are bad words and a difficult reality for NASCAR 2018.
Have the rules made the cars too easy to drive? Maybe. But the Truck Series also had an awesome intermediate race with a few more “moments” sprinkled in. Somehow, the MENCS needs to capture both their handling package and Goldilocks vibe of getting the number of unpredictable moments (DNFs, wrecks) “just right.”
FIVE: NASCAR’s Glass Half-Empty… Or Half-Full?
A few weeks back, I wrote a column about how this year NASCAR’s decline is expected. You don’t lose Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth et al without dropping a few fans along the way.
To a point, the ratings have followed a consistent pattern. Daytona, Atlanta and Las Vegas Nielsen numbers were down about 15 percent. It’s a reasonable decline considering those factors plus Olympic competition, two snoozer races up front and one rain delay (Atlanta).
That said, Daytona felt like a breath of fresh air. Young drivers like Austin Dillon and Darrell Wallace Jr. lit a national NASCAR fire we haven’t seen in a bit. Denny Hamlin and his Adderall comment briefly exposed the sport to a new audience.
Since then? Barstool Sports has gone quiet on NASCAR. A 42-year-old is the one running up front, stomping the field like he has the past four years. Wallace and Dillon have faded into midpack, handicapped by their equipment and (still) limited experience. Even Ryan Blaney, a Daytona 500 media darling has taken a back seat to… well, not much.
These past two races, considering their lopsided results, could have gone far worse. The numbers are still right where NASCAR expected them to be. But still… it’s beginning to feel like an opportunity lost here in terms of growth. And now, it may take until Martinsville for the sport to gain that mojo back.