Harvick rolling into Phoenix with final 2 chances at 10 track victories, a race weekend primer

NASCAR will wrap up their three-week west coast swing this weekend in the annual spring visit to the Arizona desert. It’s the second consecutive week of racing with a desert surrounding in trading the Nevada desert just north of the Las Vegas strip in favor of the Phoenix west valley 1-mile oval in the valley of the massive sandhills.

One could call the Phoenix Raceway, “Kevin Harvick country.”

The proverbial “king of the desert” has been astounding in Phoenix. Harvick has made 40 career series starts at Phoenix posting two poles, nine wins, 19 top fives and 29 top 10s. His average finish at the track is 8.650 – best among active drivers.

Since 2012 even, Harvick has seven wins alone to go along with 11 top two finishes (22 tries). Furthermore, Harvick has finished worse than seventh in just three of those last 22 starts too.

Now he can attempt to become just the sixth driver to win 10 or more races at a single track with a win this weekend:

Drivers with 10 or More NASCAR Cup Series Wins at a Single Track

Race WinnersNo. of TracksTracks With 10 or More Wins
Richard Petty5Martinsville (15), North Wilkesboro (15), Richmond (13), Rockingham (11) Daytona (10)
Darrell Waltrip3Bristol (12), Martinsville (11), North Wilkesboro (10)
Jimmie Johnson1Dover (11)
David Pearson1Darlington (10)
Dale Earnhardt1Talladega (10)

In saying that, his only deterrent is, he hasn’t won with this new configuration.

Harvick hasn’t exactly been like the Harvick of old at Phoenix lately. While he does have seven wins to go along with nine top two finishes in his last 22 starts, to go along with finishing worse than sixth just four times since 2012, he’s not won since the track was reconfigured either. He’s 0-for-8.

This change has been his kryptonite you could say. It’s kind of like we all saying if Kyle Larson could ever get to the Championship 4 when the final race was held at Homestead, then just give him the trophy in prerace. Well, we all thought that about Harvick when the final round was moved to Phoenix for 2020 and beyond. Harvick, was eliminated in the Round of 8 in 2 of the last 3 years and in the opening round this past one.

8 of his last 9 Phoenix results have seen him finish fifth or worse. 10 of his previous 13 on the old configuration saw him finish fourth or better.

However, he was 6th in last year’s spring race but restarted third in the end. He just didn’t have the launch to contend for the win and got eaten alive. He came back to finish fifth last Fall.

Also, Harvick was 2nd and 1st respectively at Richmond last year and finished 5th at Loudon too.

Can he win Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN)?

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 06: Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 Worldwide Express/Advent Health Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 06, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Unfortunately for him, no one truly knows what to expect as the racing package will be vastly different this weekend from this track last year.

NASCAR has announced updates to the components of the NASCAR Cup Series car for races held at road courses and short tracks (excluding Bristol and Dover). The Road Course and Selected Short Track Package will consist of the following:

  1. 2” Spoiler
  1. Remove Engine Panel Strakes
  1. Remove Center and Inner Diffuser Strakes. Only the Outer Diffuser Strakes will remain installed. Spacers will be installed between the diffuser flap and diffuser due to removing the inner diffuser strakes. 
  1. Remove Diffuser Fences and Replace with Baseline Fences.
  1. Splitter stuffers will remain unchanged from the current components.

The rules are in place at the following tracks: Charlotte Roval, Chicago Street Course, Circuit of The Americas, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Martinsville, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix, Richmond, Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

So that teams and drivers can have additional track time to adjust to these new components, NASCAR has made Phoenix Raceway an ‘extended practice’ weekend. A 50-minute practice has been added, scheduled for Friday from 4:35 p.m. to 5:25 p.m. local time.

“We saw incredible racing throughout the 2022 season, especially at the intermediate racetracks. Our goal is to have the best racing possible everywhere we race, so during the offseason, we went to work on adjustments to strengthen the racing on short tracks and road courses. Adjustments will be made to the car that will create a significant reduction in downforce and based on driver feedback and what we saw from the January test in Phoenix, we’re excited to see the results of these efforts.”

How much does this ruin what Harvick had gained back from last year?

The Ford’s had the leg up on the competition a year ago in the two annual visits to the Arizona track. They led 89% (558-for-624 laps led) overall, including 248 of the 312 in the spring race and 310 of the 312 in the Fall.

However, last week in Las Vegas, they were nowhere to be found up front. They had just two cars in the top 12 (Austin Cindric 6th, Kevin Harvick 9th). Brad Keselowski (5 laps led) was their only leader.

Hendrick Motorsports as a result of that capitalized immensely.

They led all but 21 laps and went 1-2 in Stage 1, 1-2-3 in Stage 2 and 1-2-3 in the end. It was a flex of their muscle that while they had a slower than normal start to the season, that they’re going to be as good, if not better, than they have in the past few years.

This was a statement that when we come back to Las Vegas in the Fall, that HMS is going to be a force to be reckoned with. Now is Phoenix, the site of the 2023 season finale. If HMS looks as dominate or even a fraction of as dominant as they were last weekend in Vegas, it could sent shockwaves through this garage that the championship once again runs through them.

Hendrick Motorsports led 65 of the remaining 66 laps between the two races last year at Phoenix with the only other driver to lead a lap in Phoenix last year being AJ Allmendinger (1 lap, Fall race).

One HMS driver missing is Chase Elliott who’ll miss a second straight week after a snowboarding accident in Colorado. Josh Berry is back in the No. 9 Chevrolet. How much of an impact will this have of Elliott missing this weekend’s race?

One driver that will be there is Kyle Larson (7 top 10’s in his last 8 starts at Phoenix). He led 107 laps in his championship win in 2021.

He had last week’s race won before a late race caution flew to ruin that. William Byron beat him off pit road and had prime position to capitalize on the overtime restart.

Byron led a race-high 176 of 271 laps in Sunday’s race including sweeping both stages to score his first win of the season. Now, can Byron avoid the dreaded slump after?

The 25-year-old hasn’t won in bunches. His first victory came in the 2020 Coke Zero Sugar 400. He had just a pair of top five finishes in the 10 races after. 4 of those 10 races he finished outside the top 20.

His next win came in the third race of the 2021 season at Homestead. He’d not win the rest of the year. In fact, Byron had just 11 more top five finishes in the remaining 33 races.

Last season, Byron won the 5th race of the season in Atlanta. He’d back that up with another win three races later in Martinsville. It was starting to look like Byron was going to be the guy that we all expected him to be. However, that was his final win of the 2022 season.

He had one top five finish the rest of the way. In fact, he went the next 18 races with just one top 10 result in total.

Now, he’s back to victory lane in the third race of the 2023 season. Can he use that win and his downfall after his last wins and turn it into more consistency moving forward?

Sunday’s race will be a statement in more ways than one.

Similar statements are needing to be made for both Ryan Blaney as well as SHR in general.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 06: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, crosses the finish line ahead of Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Dutch Boy Ford, to win the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 06, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Stewart-Haas Racing sits 3rd (Kevin Harvick), 21st (Aric Almirola), 31st (Ryan Preece) and 32nd (Chase Briscoe) in points after the first three weeks. This organization is otherwise reeling outside of Harvick. Aric Almirola has finished 21st, 35th and 16th this season respectively. Chase Briscoe was 35th, 20th and 28th himself. Ryan Preece has been 36th, 33rd and 23rd.

Phoenix could be just what the doctor ordered, however. It’s time for them to make a statement or this season could finish before it truly ever got going.

We know what Harvick can do here, but Briscoe won this race last year and was 4th in November. If they don’t show up this weekend, then this could be a dreadful year out of this camp.

I’m also watching Ryan Blaney in Sunday’s race to see if he can get his season on the right track. Kyle Petty called him out this week and it couldn’t be a more perfect spot to stuff it back in Petty’s face that Blaney is here to stay and can truly contend for championships.

The Team Penske driver currently sits 15th in points after finishes of just 8th, 26th and 13th respectively this season. However, Phoenix is a spot that I feel like he can contend in and make a statement back.

Blaney, has seven Top-10 finishes in his last eight starts at Phoenix including a pair of third place runs in 2019, 10th and sixth in 2020, 10th (35 laps led) and fourth in 2021 and fourth and second respectively last year. He led 143 laps and won Stage 2 in the spring race of a year ago but pit road on his final stop kept him from victory lane. Last Fall, he led another 109 laps and was runner-up to teammate Joey Logano. He was seventh and 10th at Richmond last year and only 18th at Loudon though. Blaney was third in the Martinsville playoff race too.

The time is now for Blaney to make a statement that he’s going to be a factor in this year’s championship. The knock against him is the fact that he’s won just 7 times in 273 starts. Petty compared him to someone like Kasey Kahne who had a ton of hype, even landed with Hendrick Motorsports, but flamed out. Kahne finished his Cup career with 18 wins in 529 starts.

Blaney has made it to the Round of 8 in three of the last four years, but he also has no Championship 4 appearances and outside of 2021, he’s never won more than one race in a single season. He went winless in 2022 and still hasn’t won this season with that drought jumping to 49 races. 4 of his 7 wins were on “wildcard” type tracks in Daytona, Talladega and the Charlotte ROVAL.

So, what Petty said is relevant. Blaney does his best work when the pressure is off. He’s had top five performances the last two Championship races at Phoenix when he’s not vying for a title. When he is, he spun while running third in Las Vegas last Fall. A week later, he downshifted instead of upshifted in Homestead, while also running third, to make the task really large to make it to the final round.

In 2021, his Round of 8 finishes were 6th, 37th and 11th respectively. He was 4th in Phoenix.

In 2020, he was eliminated in the first round of the postseason. He had 6 top 7’s in the 7 races after.

A devils advocate to this is the fact that Blaney’s pit crew hasn’t held up to their end of the bargain either. More times than not, Blaney comes to pit road and loses spots. It’s hard to think of times to when they consistently gain him spots on pit road.

So this is truly a team effort and one that the entire 12 team can and should make a statement in one way or the other on Sunday afternoon. Fail to perform, then it makes Petty’s statement even more relevant. Go out and win, well it makes Blaney’s case far better…

Chevrolet off to a fast start winning first three races of 2023 – The first three races of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season has only seen one manufacturer in Victory Lane – Chevrolet.

In the Modern Era (1972-2023), a manufacturer has only swept a season’s first three races five times and Chevrolet drivers are responsible for four of them – Chevrolet (1995, 2001, 2010, 2023) and Ford (1992).

This season, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the Daytona 500, Kyle Busch won at Auto Club Speedway and William Byron won last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

A manufacturer has only swept the first four races of a NASCAR Cup Series season in the Modern Era three times – Chevrolet (1995, 2001) and Ford (1992).

The record for the most consecutive wins by a manufacturer to start at NASCAR Cup Series season in the Modern Era is nine straight victories by Ford in the 1992 season. The most consecutive victories to start a Cup Series season by Chevrolet was seven straight wins in the 1995 season – second-most in the Modern Era.

NASCAR Next Gen showcasing its performance – Through the first three races of the season, the NASCAR Cup Series Next Gen car has been showcasing its performance and the stats are backing up all the great action on the track.

The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season has produced 261 Green Flag Passes for the Lead in the first three points-paying races of the year (Daytona 204 GFPL, Fontana 35 GFPL, Las Vegas 22 GFPL) – the series-most through the first three races of a season since the Loop Data statistic was initially tabulated in 2007 (last 17 seasons).

In a year-over-year comparison, the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season with 261 Green Flag Passes for the Lead, has produced an increase of 34.5% over the 2022 season’s first three races with 194 Green Flag Passes for the Lead.

The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season has produced 18,698 Total Green Flag Passes in the first three points-paying races of the year (Daytona 11,538 GFP, Fontana 3,512 GFP and Las Vegas 3,648 GFP) – the second-most through the first three races of a season since the Loop Data statistic was initially tabulated in 2007 (last 17 seasons); behind only the 2015 season with 19,240 Total Green Flag Passes.

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