Despite recent dominance, Kevin Harvick still isn’t best performer at Phoenix

(Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
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Pop quiz time, class.

Who is the best active Sprint Cup driver at Phoenix International Raceway over the last 10 years based on individual driver ratings?

Don’t forget to show your work.

While you work, did you know 22 races have been run at the 1-mile track since 2005? That’s the year PIR began hosting two races a year after being visited by the Sprint Cup Series once a year starting in 1988.

Pencils down!

Anyone who answered Kevin Harvick because of his seven wins at Phoenix since 2006 is incorrect.

Even though the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has won at PIR five times in the last seven races, including four in a row, Harvick’s driver rating of 109.9 is second to that of Jimmie Johnson.

Despite not having won at PIR since 2009, the year he won his fourth of five straight Sprint Cup championships, Johnson owns the best driver rating among active drivers at 112.6.

But driver ratings are not based off just win totals. NASCAR calculates the total off of wins, finishes, top-15 finishes, average running position while on the lead lap, average speed under green, fastest lap, most laps led and lead-lap finishes.

In 25 starts at Phoenix, Johnson has failed to finish in the top 15 just twice. Both instances came since 2012. However, Harvick hasn’t finished in the top 15 five times since 2005.

Johnson bests Harvick in average finish (7.7 to 9.3) and average running place (7.8 to 9.1). But since 2012, Johnson has finished outside the top 10 three times.

“Since Phoenix was repaved it’s been a tough track for the Lowe’s Racing team,” Johnson said in a release. “I think it has something to do with the asphalt and tire combination. This asphalt is really fast, it’s not abrasive – yet and the tires last forever. I have always struggled on hard tires on repaved tracks but in November we were pretty fast but the weather got in our way.”

Harvick, who has won at Phoenix more than any other track, believes any edge he holds at Phoenix could “be gone at any point.”

“That’s the hardest thing about having success,” Harvick said in a press release. “You have to have an open mind to try new things to keep moving forward. If you don’t have an open mind or are not willing to try a fresh approach, then it will get stagnant.”

Through three races in 2016, Harvick is third in points after three top-10 finishes, which included leading the most laps at Atlanta Motor Speedway and finishing fourth at the Daytona 500.

For Phoenix, there are more than a couple of variables Harvick’s team is taking into account to keep the party in the desert going. He will look to keep a stretch going where he has finished less than second only once in the last seven visits.

“We’ve done a lot of good things,” Harvick said. “We look at the race tape and pay attention to the lines and braking, steering, throttle and all the things that you have access to and you try to mimic that immediately when you get on the racetrack. The hard part about our sport is the conditions are never the same. The tire is constantly changing. You never know if it’s going to be 100 degrees or if it’s going to be 50 degrees.”

And you also can never know when a race will be shortened by rain.

That’s what happened in last year’s fall race at Phoenix. Harvick had led 143 laps until Dale Earnhardt Jr. came out of the pits under caution in the lead on Lap 199, just as rain began to fall. The race never returned to green after 23 cautions laps.

Harvick views the weather’s interference in keeping him from a fifth straight Phoenix win as the racing universe balancing out.

“(Earnhardt) was leading the Coke 600 in (2011), ran out of gas coming out of turn four and we won the race,” Harvick said. “Those things go in cycles. You’re going to have things work out. You’re going to have things not work out. You’re going to win races that you shouldn’t win. If you can capitalize, they’re almost harder when you’re in position to win them all day, which is something I hadn’t really learned a lot about till the last couple years because they’re hard to manage.”