Ryan: The signs of Kevin Harvick’s hot start were there for months


So where did Kevin Harvick come from to start the 2018 season?

The same direction he was headed when 2017 ended.

Forward (with a nod backward to where his career renaissance started in 2014).

Let’s demystify the conventional wisdom, regardless of Ford’s sudden resurgence after some dire predictions, that Harvick’s re-emergence on top is somehow a surprise.

For as much discussion as the Stewart-Haas Racing driver’s hot start in NASCAR’s premier series has generated, what has been somewhat overlooked is how eminently predictable it was in many ways.

Yes, Martin Truex Jr. is the defending series champion, but you can make a strong case that the fastest driver in Cup since the start of last year’s playoffs is Harvick.

According to Racing Insights, his Ford has turned more fastest laps (380) over the past 10 unrestricted races than any driver (easily outpacing 2017 title runner-up Kyle Busch’s 279 and Truex’s 239), and his average running position in that span ranks second only to Truex.

And the speed has been most noticeable at the critical 1.5-mile layouts such as Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where Harvick has dominated in winning the past two races.

Of the five 1.5-mile ovals that made up half of last year’s 10-race title run, Harvick was at the front in all of them except the season finale, leading 283 laps across Chicagoland Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway (where he ended Truex’s 1.5-mile win streak at five).

Mesh that momentum with a stress-free offseason minus a manufacturer switch, and it’s easy to see why Harvick could win a third consecutive race for the first time in his career.

“Coming into this year, we didn’t have to do all the things we had to do last year switching to Ford,” he told NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast in victory lane at Las Vegas. “This year, it was nothing but the car and the bodies and getting the setups fine-tuned from things we did at the end of last year. As we got in the playoffs and on 1.5-milers, our program really picked up. That has carried over into this year.”

While two unrestricted races is an admittedly small sample size, it also should be noted that Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers rarely leave the competition guessing about their intentions – whether it’s in practices, qualifying, or races, they always are trying to be first. They tried sandbagging once after their dominant 2014-15 seasons resulted in countless trips to the NASCAR R&D Center, and Childers explained on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast why it was a mistake.

After a two-season dip in which they lacked the weekly world-beating speed the No. 4 had in their first two years together, Harvick and Childers seem to have regained the magic again in their fifth year.

Leading more than 2,000 laps as they did in ’14 and ’15 suddenly seems a real possibility again — but with a distinct twist that should leave rivals concerned.

Across those two seasons, Harvick had eight victories but an astonishing 19 runner-up finishes. His nickname is “The Closer,” but that moniker belies the fact that Harvick led the most laps without winning 20 times over the past four seasons – or roughly once out of every seven races.

In that lack of execution, Atlanta (where Harvick led the most laps for four straight years but hadn’t won since 2001) had been the most glaringly consistent example. His Feb. 25 victory bucking that trend might point toward the beginning of a career year.

Having led 49.4 percent of the laps in ‘18, it isn’t too early to ponder if Harvick might realize the unrealized potential from his first season with Childers when they should have posted a double-digit win total.

“This feels a lot like 2014, but this is a lot different team than 2014,” Harvick told Stavast (video of the interview above). “We made a lot of mistakes and could have won a bunch more races in 2014 if it wasn’t for mistakes, broken parts and all the new team blues we went through. This is a team that’s got that same speed in the cars with a lot of experience now together. Hopefully, it keeps rolling.”

He likely will keep rolling over the competition if it does.

Since January, Ford drivers privately had been predicting the new Optical Scanning Station inspection process would help shrink their gap to other manufacturers. The results at Las Vegas (six of the top 10 were Fusions) indicated their instincts were right, and the new common splitter also has been singled out as another reason for the seeming increase in parity.

Those changes didn’t happen as a direct result of Brad Keselowski’s lobbying NASCAR last year. But even without obvious cause and effect, the Team Penske driver has shown there can be benefits to thrusting a thorny topic into the public sphere (and absorbing the subsequent heat on social media and elsewhere).

Just as when he put Hendrick Motorsports on blast for its rear skew suspension advancements midway through his 2012 championship season, Keselowski’s goal wasn’t just getting NASCAR’s attention. In ’12, he made a “dual play” in subtly motivating his team to build the cars that won him the championship while also putting Hendrick in NASCAR’s crosshairs.

The optical scanning and common splitter almost certainly were happening independent of Keselowski’s blasts last year, but it didn’t hurt for him to keep the spotlight on Ford’s deficit, keeping it top of mind for NASCAR, Penske and other teams.

The manufacturer wars of the 1990s weren’t pleasant for NASCAR to officiate (they played a major role in driving the ill-conceived “common template” era), but it’s a juicy storyline that’s entertaining for fans and the news media to follow if there are participants willing to face the accompanying criticism and scrutiny that often accompanies speaking one’s mind with an opinion guaranteed to be unpopular in some quarters.

Keselowski’s willingness to put himself in the barrel pays off, and it’s good for NASCAR as well.

NASCAR is right in surmising that malfunctioning pit guns isn’t a good storyline, nor is it necessarily new, but it would be incorrect to suggest it isn’t newsworthy.

The technological advancement of pit guns has become a headline in recent years. When Hendrick Motorsports added one of Kyle Busch’s longtime tire changers in the 2015 playoffs, the focus was on the proprietary knowledge it would bring the team as much as his swiftness on pit stops.

The millions that began pouring into R&D to optimize pit guns was a factor in why NASCAR and the Team Owners Council collaborated on implementing a standardized version this season – and that’s changed the game on why the guns – and any problems associated with them – demand more attention now.

When a failure happens to equipment constructed by teams, it inherently will be less of a story because the reliability is incumbent upon them, and there are ways in which the risks could be mitigated.

That isn’t the case with the Paoli-manufactured pit guns. The responsibility ultimately will fall on NASCAR, which is why it’s imperative the problems get solved before they begin costing drivers points that might make the difference in the playoffs.

When was the last time Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team rebounded as well from in-race adversity as in Sunday’s 12th at Las Vegas? Probably the Oct. 21, 2012 race at Kansas Speedway, where the seven-time champion placed ninth after crumpling the rear of his Chevrolet with a Turn 4 crash midrace.

Much of the team personnel has been overturned since then (including longtime car chief Ron Malec, who left the road this year), but Vegas reminded that as long as Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus remain the nucleus, it’s foolish to count them out even when facing the slimmest of odds.

But it isn’t Johnson’s spirit that should be questioned as whether he can adjust to settling for a finish subpar to his standards of excellence.

“At the end of last year and even in Atlanta I was trying too hard,” Johnson said after Vegas. “Just giving 100 percent and driving the car where it’s at and bringing it home is what I need to start doing. I have been trying to carry it and I’ve crashed more cars in the last six months than I have really in any six-month stretch or whole-year stretch.”

This was a point that NBC analyst Jeff Burton made on NASCAR America last week: Accepting a top 15 actually can be tougher than striving to keep a top five.

“How does a seven-time champion get that mentality? That’s a very difficult place to be,” Burton said (in the video below). “I’ve been where I expected to go win races and couldn’t finish on the lead lap. I had to take a step back and say we have to just finish 12th. That’s very difficult thing for someone as accomplished as Hendrick Motorsports.”

This is a tricky situation for Johnson, 42. He likely has only a few years left as a viable contender for a record eighth championship, but he also is trying to exhibit patience for three teammates who are at least 18 years younger and represent Hendrick’s future. The short-term suffering might feed the team’s long-term growth, but it also could preclude Johnson putting a championship capper on one of NASCAR’s greatest careers.

Johnson’s role as a mentor was name-checked by Harvick after his win at Atlanta. Harvick said he wanted to help groom the next generation of stars (“with so many of the young guys coming up through the ranks, and there’s so much to learn, but we have to teach them about it”), and he proved it on track when he let Hendrick rookie William Byron back on the lead lap near the end of the 30-lap run to the first caution at Atlanta.

Byron, whose No. 24 Chevrolet was perilously close to destroying his rear tires, said it was “a big favor” that he appreciated but also noted that he and Harvick had developed a good relationship.

“Yeah, it did catch me off guard,” Byron said of Harvick’s help. “I’ve known Kevin for a little bit and try to use him as a resource and talk to him sometimes.  I always find he is so logical, and he is so direct with what he feels and what he does. I think that is something all the young guys could learn from.”

It seems they have a willing teacher.

The CEO of one of Byron’s main sponsors, Axalta, caused a minor stir Monday when he suggested to the Sports Business Journal that NASCAR should consider shortening its races to a window of three hours because it works well in Formula One.

While the comparison wasn’t perfect (the imagery of a steak dinner on a yacht in Monte Carlo harbor rings hollow when juxtaposed against the merits of 500 rough-and-tumble laps at Martinsville), it again reminded why the argument for shorter races isn’t going away.

If that chorus grows from the decision-makers at companies with eight-figure annual investments in NASCAR, it’ll become that much harder for track promoters and presidents to argue that the interests of anywhere from 50-100,000 paying customers supersede those of various constituencies (from TV audiences to sponsors to NASCAR executives who acknowledge an increasingly shorter societal attention span).

Two crashes in three races weren’t how Kurt Busch envisioned a start to a season that is critical to his NASCAR future. He signed a one-year deal for 2018 late in the offseason with an understanding the next contract could be predicated on the first few months of the year.

“That’s what ultimately, in my mind, writes the signature on contracts is performance,” he said in an episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast that was taped in January. “If we come out of the box strong and win Daytona or are cranking out top fives, 2019 (and) 2020 should come together quicker.

“If we come out of the box stumbling and tripping, that’s going to create the question of what should be done in the future.”

Sunday’s crash at Las Vegas was uncharacteristic for a 2004 champion with impeccable car control, but Busch also said on the podcast that he welcomed the pressure.

“That’s what I like when your back is up against the wall and future isn’t guaranteed, you’ve got to go hard,” he said.

Starting lineup for the Auto Club 400

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Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch will start on the front row of Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

They will be followed by Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon and Joey Logano.

Kevin Harvick will start his attempt at a fourth consecutive win from 10th.

Thirteen drivers will start from the rear after their cars failed qualifying inspection.

Click here for the starting lineup

13 Cup teams fail inspection, do not make qualifying attempt

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13 Cup teams did not make a qualifying attempt for the Auto Club 400 after they failed to pass inspection Friday.

Those teams include all four Hendrick Motorsports cars (Jimmie Johnson, William Byron, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman), Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Kasey Kahne, Daniel Suarez, Timmy Hill, Cole Whitt, Ross Chastain and AJ Allmendinger.

All 13 cars will start from the rear Sunday.

“The first time through there were a lot of failures at all the stations, it was basically kind of split between chassis, weights and measures and the body scan, ” Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition told Fox Sports 1. “The second time through it seems like most of it centered around the actual body scan itself, which honestly this is the most aerodynamic track we’ve gone to, so kind of no surprise that they would be pushing the limits here more than some of the other places.”

Jeff Andrews, Hendrick Motorsports’ competition director, said the issues on the four Hendrick cars were “similar” in the area of the deck lid.

“We’ve got to go back, we need to talk internally and talk with NASCAR,” Andrews told FS1. “We felt like we were making changes in the area affected and we were not seeing the results when we went back through.”

Typically, teams must start a race on the tires they used in qualifying.

NASCAR announced late Friday night it would allow all teams that made a qualifying lap to purchase a new set of sticker tires to start Sunday’s race one. They must return their scuff tires to Goodyear.

Martin Truex Jr. wins pole for Auto Club 400

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Martin Truex Jr. qualified first for Sunday’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway.

With a speed of 186.567 mph, Truex won his second consecutive pole.

It’s the 17th pole of his career.

Kyle Busch qualified second with a speed of 186.437 mph.

“First time ever (with consecutive poles), that’s definitely pretty cool,” Truex told Fox Sports 1. “We tried to stay on scuffs (tires) in that first practice, ran our best lap on scuffs this morning. Thought that played into our hands a little bit here in qualifying. Round 2, I got the seam a little bit and lost some time and that bit me. Luckily in the third round was able to put a lap together. Wouldn’t say it was perfect, but it was a pretty solid lap.”

The top five was completed by Kyle Larson (186.128), Erik Jones (186.047) and Austin Dillon (185.711).

Kevin Harvick, who is going for his fourth consecutive Cup win, qualified 10th. He was fastest in the first two rounds.

His first round time of 38.147 sec/188.744 mph set a track record.

“We expected to show up and have a good day at this particular point,” Harvick told FS1. “When you look at the momentum and confidence everybody has and really everything that we’re doing right now, it just keeps building and you keep feeding off that momentum.”

Busch starts on the front row for the second time this year.

“Definitely screwed up Turn 3, I thought everything else about the lap was pretty good,” Busch told FS1. “With the amount of time I had in the gas on exit I was still too easy missing the exit with the amount of speed we were carrying.”

Thirteen teams were unable to make qualifying attempts after they failed to get through inspection.

Those teams included all four Henrick Motorsports cars, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Kasey Kahne, Daniel Suarez, Timmy Hill, Cole Whitt, Ross Chastain and AJ Allmendinger.

All 13 cars will start from the rear Sunday.

“The first time through there were a lot of failures at all the stations, it was basically kind of split between chassis, weights and measures and the body scan, ” Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition told FS1. “The second time through it seems like most of it centered around the actual body scan itself, which honestly this is the most aerodynamic track we’ve gone to, so kind of no surprise that they would be pushing the limits here more than some of the other places.”

David Ragan, Michael McDowell, Jeffrey Earnhardt and Reed Sorenson did not make qualifying runs in the second round.

McDowell did not make a run after his team changed a rear gear in practice. He will also start from the rear.

Due to the inspections issues, Earnhardt (23rd) and Gray Gaulding (20th) earned career-best qualifying results.

Late Friday night NASCAR announced it would permit all teams that made a lap in qualifying to purchase a set of sticker tires to start the race on. They must return their scuff tires to Goodyear.

Click here for qualifying results.

Xfinity Series practice report from Auto Club Speedway

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Daniel Hemric was fastest in the last of two Xfinity Series practice sessions for Saturday’s race at Auto Club Speedway.

The Richard Childress Racing driver posted a top speed of 178.829 mph around the 2-mile track.

He was followed by Joey Logano (178.284), John Hunter Nemechek (178.258), Christopher Bell (177.998) and Tyler Reddick (177.962).

Reddick recorded the most laps with 40.

Justin Allgaier had the best 10-lap average at 175.902 mph.

The session was slowed once for a spin by Brandon Jones. His No. 19 Toyota was not damaged.

First practice

Bell topped the speed chart, posting a top speed of 178.664 mph around the 2-mile speedway.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is making his first start at the track.

Bell led Logano (178.081), Austin Dillon (178.064), Hemric (177.980) and Reddick (177.870).

“Our GameStop/Turtle Beach Camry is pretty fast on the short run, I think we need to work on a long run a little bit more,” Bell told Fox Sports 1. “This place is really unique. I’ve never experienced a race track of this size where you use as much brake as you do, especially getting into Turn 1 there.”

Nemechek, who is also making his first start at the track, recorded the most laps with 33. He was 11th on the speed chart (176.648).

He also had the best 10-lap average at 173.500 mph.

Click here for the Practice No. 1 speed chart.

Click here for the final practice speed chart.