By Steve Mickey
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick once again showed why he is the driver to beat any time the Sprint Cup schedule makes a stop at Phoenix International Raceway. Some drivers in the series have tracks where they always seem to run well but Harvick’s history at Phoenix is one of domination and his win in Sunday’s Good Sam 500 (k) did nothing but solidify him as the driver to beat any time the series rolls into the Arizona track.
The win was Harvick’s eighth at Phoenix with the last five coming in the six starts that he has had with Stewart-Haas since moving over from Richard Childress Racing. This win was definitely the toughest of the eight as it took a great call by his crew chief and some last lap heroics to capture the checkered flag.
Harvick looked as if he was going to run away with the race as he had a very comfortable lead in the closing laps until Kasey Kahne blew a tire sending him into the outside wall on lap 305 of the scheduled 312 laps that brought out the final caution flag of the race. The yellow flag put the pressure squarely on the crew chiefs as each had to decide to finish the race on worn tires or come down pit road for a new set of Goodyear Eagles.
Harvick along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Austin Dillon all stayed out on old tires while the bulk of the field opted for new tires led by Carl Edwards. The race did not restart until lap 312 which forced the race to run one lap further than the race’s original distance.
It didn’t take long for Edwards to make his move on the restart as he moved his Toyota into second place behind Harvick by the time the field came out of Turn 2. Edwards had the speed but Harvick knows his way around Phoenix better than anybody and he knew that the key was going to be for him to keep his Chevrolet on the bottom of the race track.
That strategy seemed to be working for Harvick as he was able to hold off Edwards until he came out of the final two turns and his car slid up the track opening up the inside for Edwards to make his move. The two drivers banged off each other twice coming to the start/finish line as both drivers were trying to gain some momentum by dooring each other in order to get a run. Harvick gained just enough momentum to take the checkered flag by the closest margin in the history of the track. The winning margin was just .010 seconds (about four inches ahead of Edwards) which is the seventh closest finish in the history of the Sprint Cup Series.
Harvick now joins Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski as drivers who have punched their ticket into the season ending Chase by claiming an early season win. Even though they are in the Chase, all of these drivers will continue to race for more wins to collect the bonus points they earn for each one in the opening round of the Chase but they also will be able to gamble some with their setups that they normally would not if they were still racing to get into the Chase.
PIT NOTES: While winning is the quickest way into the Chase, after four races there is already a points race starting to take place that will also be the only way in for some drivers that are not able to win a race during the first 26 races on the schedule. Kyle Busch (0 wins) has the same amount of points (154) as Harvick but finds himself in second place as wins are the first tie-breaker used. Penske Racing still has plans to add a third team with Ryan Blaney behind the wheel. Blaney now drives for the Wood Brothers but is under contract with Penske. Team owner Roger Penske said that the third team may be a Penske entry or that it could be a Wood-Penske entry depending on how the Charter system works out.
Event: Auto Club 400
Track: Auto Club Speedway (2.0 mile D-shaped oval, 14o of banking in the turns)
Date: March 20, 3:30 pm
Defending Champion: Brad Keselowski