Ryan: Three takeaways from Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway

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1. Kevin Harvick could have a significant impact on whom he faces in defending his Sprint Cup championship: The hottest driver in NASCAR isn’t likely to slow down soon – Kevin Harvick has wins at the next two tracks on the circuit (Auto Club Speedway, Martinsville Speedway) and finished second in NASCAR’s last visit to Texas Motor Speedway in November. That started his No. 4 Chevrolet’s stretch of seven consecutive top-two finishes, which shows no signs of abating despite a new engine and aero configurations this season.

Harvick, who had five victories in 2014 but could have won twice that many if not for misfortunate and mistakes, could post double-digit victories in the regular season at this clip. That’s significant because the more he wins, the more he torpedoes his rivals’ golden tickets into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

It isn’t inconceivable that Harvick’s performance could change the way teams approach races until the Chase begins. Last year, 13 of the 16 spots were awarded to race winners. If Harvick keeps snatching victories, many more Chase positions could be awarded on points, putting a larger premium on consistency over winning for the competition fighting for table scraps.

2. Tony Stewart is in trouble: Stewart seemed headed for a much-needed first top 10 of the season before losing control of his No. 14 Chevrolet while battling Justin Allgaier for position. The three-time series champion instead took 39th (his No. 14 Chevrolet crashed again and wasn’t running at the finish after completing 282 laps). It was his fourth straight 30th or worse to open 2015, and he has slipped to a dangerous 36th ranking in the points.

His bid to end a two-season absence from the Chase for the Sprint Cup is far from over, but Stewart drove Sunday with an air of desperation and impatience (booting aside Austin Dillon early in the race) that didn’t help his cause.

After missing significant time the past two seasons, he hasn’t seemed as comfortable in the cockpit this year, and next Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway – representative of the superspeedways that comprise the bulk of the schedule – will be a crucial test.

3. Martin Truex Jr. is for real: With his fourth straight top 10 to open the season, Truex made Furniture Row Racing history. The team’s previous record of three straight top 10s was set by Kurt Busch, who carried Furniture Row to its only Chase appearance in 2013 during his lone season with the team.

It’s early, but Truex is the runaway leader for comeback driver of the year, and making the Chase would complete an even greater career turnaround for the two-time Xfinity Series champion. Since being booted from the 2013 Chase and losing his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing because of NAPA’s pullout after a team orders scandal, little had gone right on the track for the Mayetta, N.J., native, who also has faced girlfriend Sherry Pollex’s battle with ovarian cancer. But after a 2014 season in which he managed only five top 10s, Truex has found magic with new crew chief Cole Pearn, whose engineering background seems to have righted the direction of the No. 78 Chevrolet.

If he can maintain the performance, Truex’s story could become the most heartwarming in NASCAR this season.

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