clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

NASCAR Phoenix preview: All eyes focused on Kevin Harvick

Which driver is the favorite Sunday? It’s Kevin Harvick, who’s won five of the past seven Phoenix races.

Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt are to run commemorative paint schemes featuring the likenesses of Superman (Johnson) and Batman (Earnhardt) on their cars next week at Auto Club Speedway.

While ideal choices from a marketing aspect, if anyone is to have a paint scheme with the depiction of a superhero it should be Kevin Harvick Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, where his performance is akin to Superman's brute strength and Batman's cunning.

In the past seven races on the 1-mile desert oval Harvick owns five victories, which equates to a 71.4 percent winning percentage, and his seven wins overall is a track-record. And were it not for Mother Nature intervening last November, he would likely be entering Sunday with five straight Phoenix wins. (Dale Earnhardt Jr. captured the rain-shortened event with Harvick, who led 143 of 219 laps, finishing second.)

"I think the whole field is chasing Kevin."-Carl Edwards

But the dominance goes beyond just the gaudy victory totals, as Harvick's led 74 percent of all laps over the past four races. It's no wonder then the competition has drawn a proverbial bulls-eye around the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team.

"It's tough," Jimmie Johnson said of beating Harvick. "There's no way around it. The No. 4 car is the one that we'll all be paying close attention to."

Said Carl Edwards: "I think the whole field is chasing Kevin and that 4 car at this race track."

Harvick downplays any advantage -- real or perceived -- he may hold. In NASCAR's most competitive era where potential winners on a weekly basis number into the mid-to-high teens, no driver or team is invincible.

Before Harvick ruled at Phoenix, Johnson was viewed as the driver to beat winning three times over a four-race stretch. But Johnson's superiority ended when the track underwent a dramatic makeover between its spring and fall events in 2011. Among the changes was the implementation of progressive banking, a widened front straightaway, a new dogleg on the backstretch along with a complete repaving.

"I don't ever think about beating one person ever because this garage is too tough to beat one person," Harvick said. "When one person is going to win half the races then we might do that.

"The cars are so close and so competitive now that you have to have everything go your way on a particular day as well in order to win the races. It's never going to be about one car. There are 20 cars that can win on any given week in my opinion, no matter where you are."

There is no straightforward or simplistic reason why Harvick excels at Phoenix. Some drivers just find a particular venue suits their driving styles; Johnson enjoys similar success at Dover International Speedway, while Earnhardt is a restrictor-plate savant and as such, Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway are in his wheelhouse.

Harvick credits his ability to get into the corners with minimum braking as the key to why he does so well. The 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion jokes if officials ever moved the cones entering Turn 1, which he uses as his braking markers, he wouldn't know where to decelerate and would be in "deep crap." And it also helps that Phoenix, a nominally banked track, shares characteristics with the kinds of tracks Harvick, a native of Bakersfield, Calif., has great familiarity with.

"I grew up on a lot of these flat style type race tracks, short tracks up and down the West Coast," Harvick said. "For whatever reason all the flat tracks have just kind of still fit my driving style throughout the years, whether it be here or [New Hampshire Motor Speedway], but obviously this place we have had a lot more success than some of the others."

But as exceptional Harvick may be at Phoenix, a chink in his armor materialized in qualifying on Friday. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch, Edwards and Denny Hamlin clocked-in the fastest three speeds, respectively, while Harvick qualified a pedestrian 18th.

Although the conditions between time trials and the race are vastly different, beating Harvick in any facet at Phoenix is a victory unto itself. On a tight track where passing is challenging, Harvick needs to navigate his way through traffic, whereas the JGR Toyotas have a relatively clear track to contend with.

"He's obviously been really, really good here over the years," Busch said. "I would not discount him being able to drive up from his starting position. I don't think you can ever count out Harvick."