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

2 Comments

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.

NASCAR America: Better equipment, skilled drivers changed road racing

Leave a comment

The Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway is the first of three road course races on the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series calendar and the preparation involved in setting up these cars is much greater today than it has been in the past, according to NASCAR America analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Jarrett.

“I think the same emphasis is put in those two road course races and the cars that will be in those races,” Earnhardt said. “And now the Roval that will be at Charlotte – being a very important race in the playoffs – these road course racers are even more important.”

Man and machine need to be equal to the challenge.

“Not only is the emphasis more on the drivers to prepare and learn how to become road course racers, but there is a lot more emphasis on the cars too,” Earnhardt said. “All the cars are so much more similar and there is a lot more dedication to preparing the cars for these particular races. It’s almost like there is as much effort into putting a good road course car on the track as there is speedway cars – like Daytona and Talladega cars.”

Even the best driver cannot compete in equipment that is not up to the challenge and it took some outside expertise to raise NASCAR to the level of other marquee road racing series mechanically. Car owners like Jack Roush and road ringers like Boris Said contributed to the evolution of the racing discipline.

“The cars are so much better now than when we started,” Dale Jarrett said. “Whenever I got started in the Cup series fulltime in ’87, there were a couple of good road racers – and I think of Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace … but Jack Roush brought something totally new into the sport a little later in the 80s and early 90s. … Their equipment was a little bit better because they understood road racing a little more. Now everybody has all that.”

Jarrett recalled what he believes might be one of the biggest upsets of his career. He won the pole for the 2001 Global Crossing at the Glen because he received a tip from Said, who told him he was not getting deep enough into the corners because his brakes were not good enough.

“You talk about road course ringers: Boris Said and Ron Fellows and some other guys coming in,” Jarrett said. “One of the things that helped them, they were better because they did it all the time, but they also would tell the teams they were going to drive for, ‘hey, there’s a lot better braking and other things out there that you can do.’ They came in and they had better equipment, which made them look even that much better than what we were.”

For more, watch the video above.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Jarrett preview upcoming races

NBCSN
Leave a comment

Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with Dale Earnhardt Jr. making his weekly appearance on the show.

Krista Voda hosts with Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett from the Big Oak Table in Charlotte.

On today’s show:

· Not long ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. bragged about his ability to remember who he’s beaten for wins in past races. In this episode, we’ll test his memory in a trivia game called “Who Did Junior Pass For The Win?” We’ll be taking your questions for Junior throughout the show. Just send it on social media with the hashtag #Wednesdale.

· Sonoma begins a critical summer stretch for the Monster Energy Cup Series. With Chicagoland, Daytona, Kentucky and New Hampshire on the horizon, teams will be challenged and playoff hopes will rise and fall. Dale Jr. & Dale Jarrett preview the upcoming races.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Three Cup drivers will reach career start milestones at Sonoma

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Three Cup drivers will reach career start milestones when the series visits Sonoma Raceway this weekend.

Ryan Newman leads the way with his 600th Cup start.

The Richard Childress Racing driver will become the 28th driver to reach the mark. His first start came on Nov. 5, 2000 at ISM Raceway with Team Penske.

Newman is one of four remaining active Cup drivers, including Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Derrike Cope, who competed against Dale Earnhardt in a Cup points race. Only Newman and Busch compete full-time.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin will make his 450th start. He will become the 52nd driver to reach that mark.

Hamlin’s first start came on Oct. 9, 2005 at Kansas Speedway. All of his starts have been with JGR.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will make his 200th career start. He will be the 132nd driver to reach that mark.

Stenhouse’s first start came in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 with Wood Brothers Racing when he substituted for Trevor Bayne, who was out due to illness. Every other start has been with Roush Fenway Racing.

The last race at Michigan International Speedway saw AJ Allmendinger make his 350th Cup start. 71 drivers have reached that mark.

How much does starting position matter at Sonoma?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Do you need to qualify on the pole, the front row or the even the top five to better your chances of winning a NASCAR race?

On a typical race weekend one would think that’s the case. Through 15 races this season, the winner has started in the top five eight times. Only four winners started 10th or worse.

But this isn’t a typical race weekend as the Cup Series heads to Sonoma Raceway for its first road course race of the season.

The series has held 29 races at the road course since 1989. In those 29 races, the winner started from the pole five times (17.2 percent).

That makes it the most prolific starting position at the track in terms of wins.

But a winner hasn’t come from the pole since 2004 when Jeff Gordon did it for a track-best third time.

The driver starting second has won three times, the last occurring in 2010 with Jimmie Johnson. Since that race, only one Sonoma winner – Carl Edwards (fourth) in 2014 – has started in the top five.

In the 13 races since Gordon last won from the pole, the race winner started in the top five three times.

The last three races saw the winner start 11th (Kyle Busch), 10th (Tony Stewart) and 12th (Kevin Harvick).

In contrast, the 14 races from 1992-2005 saw every race winner came from inside the top 10 and 11 from the top five.

What’s changed? Road course racing became much more aggressive with the transition to double fire restarts in 2009. The introduction of stage racing last year added another wrinkle to a type of racing that already saw aggressive pit strategy.

But Sonoma isn’t too kind to drivers starting in the back half of the field.

The deepest in the field that a race winner has started is 32nd, when Juan Pablo Montoya won in 2007. Only one other time has the winner come from outside the top 15, when Kyle Busch started 30th and won in 2008.