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

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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.

NBC Sports ready to take fans the rest of the way to Miami

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We’re back!

In a season that has featured a scuffle on pit road at ISM Raceway, drivers beating and banging after the All-Star Race and three Cup races going to overtime, including the Daytona 500, NBC Sports is ready to bring you the final 10 Cup races of the regular season and then the 10 playoff races.

The intensity is just picking up.

Last year saw NBC Sports’ first Cup race of the season end with Dale Earnhardt Jr. yelling “Slide job!” as Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson battled on the last lap for the win at Chicagoland Speedway.

The excitement continued through the rest of the regular season and on to the playoffs where NBC Sports was there for the inaugural Cup race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval and the dramatic finish that saw Jimmie Johnson crash into leader Martin Truex Jr. in the final chicane and Ryan Blaney going from third to the victory.

NBC Sports’ Cup coverage last year ended with Joey Logano’s win in Miami to claim not only the race but the championship.

NBC Sports will be there to bring you all the action the rest of the season for the Cup and Xfinity Series, beginning this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway on NBCSN.

Earnhardt, Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton are back with Rick Allen in the booth. Marty Snider, Dave Burns, Kelli Stavast and Parker Kligerman will again be reporting from pit road. Krista Voda, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan will set the day’s activities each race weekend. And also at the track will be Rutledge Wood, who will tell some of the unique stories of the weekend.

Get ready to catch all the action on NBCSN and NBC.

Here is when you can see the rest of the Cup and Xfinity seasons:

Cup Schedule

(All times Eastern)

June 30 — Chicagoland (3 p.m., NBCSN)

July 6 — Daytona (7:30 p.m., NBC)

July 13 — Kentucky (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

July 21 — New Hampshire (3 p.m., NBCSN)

July 28 — Pocono (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Aug. 4 — Watkins Glen (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Aug. 11 — Michigan (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Aug. 17 — Bristol (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Sept. 1 — Darlington (6 p.m. NBCSN)

Sept. 8 — Indianapolis (2 p.m., NBC)

Playoffs

Sept. 15 — Las Vegas (7 p.m., NBCSN)

Sept. 21 — Richmond (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Sept. 29 — Charlotte Roval (2:30 p.m., NBC)

Oct. 6 — Dover (2:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Oct. 13 — Talladega (2 p.m., NBC)

Oct. 20 — Kansas (2:30 p.m., NBC)

Oct. 27 — Martinsville (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Nov. 3 — Texas (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Nov. 10 — Phoenix (2:30 p.m., NBC)

Nov. 17 — Miami (3 p.m., NBC)

 

Xfinity Schedule

(All times Eastern)

June 29 — Chicagoland (3:30 p.m., NBCSN)

July 5 — Daytona (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

July 12 — Kentucky (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

July 20 — New Hampshire (4 p.m., NBCSN)

July 27 — Iowa (5 p.m., NBCSN)

Aug. 3 — Watkins Glen (3 p.m., NBC)

Aug. 10 — Mid-Ohio (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Aug. 16 — Bristol (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Aug. 24 — Road America (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Aug. 31 — Darlington (4 p.m., NBC)

Sept. 7 — Indianapolis (4 p.m., NBCSN)

Sept. 14 — Las Vegas (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Playoffs

Sept. 20 — Richmond (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Sept. 28 — Charlotte Roval (3:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Oct. 5 — Dover (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Oct. 19 — Kansas (3 p.m., NBC)

Nov. 2 — Texas (8:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Nov. 9 — Phoenix (3:30 p.m., NBC)

Nov. 16 — Miami (3:30 p.m. NBCSN)

NBC Sports Power rankings: Martin Truex Jr. is unanimous No. 1

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This week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings were thrown into disarray.

The culprit? The first road course race of the year.

While Martin Truex Jr. is the unanimous leader of the power rankings after his fourth win of the year Sunday at Sonoma, there are six new drivers in the top 10 from the last Cup ranking after Michigan.

The biggest jump comes from Denny Hamlin, who went from unranked after the Michigan race two weeks ago to third this week. Kevin Harvick also went from unranked to the top five.

Another of the new additions is Ross Chastain, who earned his second Truck Series win at Gateway a week after an inspection failure took a win away in Iowa.

1. Martin Truex Jr. (40 points): Has matched his 2018 win total with four wins over the last eight races. The only driver with multiple wins in that stretch.  Last time: 3rd

2. Kyle Busch (36 points): Scored his fourth consecutive top-five finish but couldn’t catch teammate Martin Truex Jr. at the end at Sonoma.  Last time: Tie for 1st

3. Denny Hamlin (26 points): Has not finished worse than 11th in the last three races and scored the most points at Sonoma. Last time: Not ranked

4. Joey Logano (21 points): Despite an alternator issue and a 23rd-place finish at Sonoma, still has seven top 10s in the last nine races and leads the points. Last time: Tie for 1st

5. Kevin Harvick (20 points): Lacked winning Sonoma speed of past three years but at least put together a strong sixth-place finish. Last time: Not ranked (was in others receiving votes).

6. Ryan Blaney (15 points):  Earned first top five since Bristol and his second straight top five on a road course. Last time: Not ranked

7. Matt DiBenedetto (12 points): As the whispers about his Cup future begin to swirl again, his first career top five was a statement. Last time: Not ranked

8. Ryan Newman (11 points): Seventh-place finish was his second top 10 in a row. He’s completed all but eight laps this season to rank third in most laps run (behind only Busch and Logano). Last time: Not ranked

(tie) 9. Tyler Reddick (9 points): Xfinity didn’t race last weekend but stays in the top 10 as numerous Cup drivers had off days at Sonoma. Last time: Tie for 6th

(tie) 9. Ross Chastain (9 points): His watermelon smash counted in Gateway when his winning truck passed inspection, giving him two wins this year. Previously: Unranked in normal Cup power rankings, but ranked 4th in Xfinity/Trucks ranking.

Others Receiving Votes: Aric Almirola (6 points), Kyle Larson (5 points), Brad Keselowski (5 points), Chase Elliott (3 points), Chris Buescher (1 point) and Todd Gilliland (1 point).

 

Jimmie Johnson looks to end winless streak at his best winless track

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It has been a very, very long time since Jimmie Johnson visited Victory Lane in the Cup Series.

It’s been two seasons and three races since Johnson won at Dover International Speedway in June 2017.

But it’s been even longer since Johnson enjoyed a victory at Chicagoland Speedway. In fact, Johnson’s lone win on the 1.5-mile track came in its inaugural Xfinity race in 2001. It is his only win in the Xfinity Series.

Yes, Johnson, the seven-time champion and 83-time Cup winner has not won at Chicago in NASCAR’s premier series.

It is one of three active Cup tracks he has multiple starts at that he has yet to win on, including Watkins Glen and Kentucky.

But there’s multiple reasons being winless at Chicago probably rubs Johnson the wrong way and why ending his winless streak would be made sweeter.

For one, he’s pretty good there.

Johnson has made 17 Cup starts at Chicagoland since 2002. He has led a track-record 695 laps. The next highest total for a winless driver at Chicagoland is Kurt Busch with 124 laps led.

Johnson’s total is the eight highest among Cup drivers who have the most laps led at a track without a win. At least Johnson doesn’t have to worry about being winless at Martinsville after leading 1,986 laps, as is the case with Bobby Allison.

Via: Racing Insights

Johnson has been close to winning in Chicago. He has earned three runner-up results there with the most recent coming in 2012 after he led 172 laps from the pole.

His most recent solid outing there came in 2016 when he started eighth and led 118 laps before he finished 12th.

Should Johnson break through Sunday, it would mark the longest winless streak that was snapped in Chicago.

The longest snapped streak belongs to David Reutimann, who ended a 42-race winless streak in 2010.

Why should Johnson feel confident about his prospects this weekend?

While he’s finished 12th or worse in the last three races, he enters the weekend with the longest active streak of top 10s on 1.5-mile tracks with three. That’s one more than Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher.

He was sixth in the Coca-Cola 600 two weeks after he finished eighth at Kansas Speedway. The streak began at Texas Motor Speedway in March, where he started from the pole, led 60 laps and finished second in Stage 1 before eventually placing fifth.

Preliminary entry lists for NASCAR at Chicagoland

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NASCAR returns to the NBC family this weekend as all three national series travel to Chicagoland Speedway.

Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series teams are at the same track for the first time since Dover at the start of May.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for all three series.

Cup – Camping World 400 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN)

There are 38 cars entered.

Garrett Smithley is entered in Premium Motorsports’ No. 15 Chevrolet.

Quin Houff is entered in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet.

There are no drivers listed for Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 and No. 52 cars.

Last year: Kyle Busch defeated Kyle Larson after a dramatic last-lap battle.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Camping World 300 (3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

There are 41 cars entered. Three cars will not make the race.

Ross Chastain will drive Kaulig Racing’s No. 10 Chevrolet for the third time this year. Landon Cassill will drive JD Motorsports’ No. 4 Chevrolet.

Zane Smith is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Riley Herbst will make his fourth start in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota.

Jeffrey Earnhardt is entered in XCI Racing’s No. 81 Toyota.

Last year: Kyle Larson won over Kevin Harvick and Cole Custer

Click here for the entry list.

Trucks – Camping World 225 (9 p.m. ET Friday on FS1)

There are 33 trucks entered. One truck will not make the race.

Dylan Lupton will make his season debut with DGR-Crosley in the No. 5 Toyota.

Tyler Ankrum is back in DGR-Crosley’s No. 17 Toyota.

Brandon Jones is entered in Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 51 Toyota.

There is no driver listed with Reaume Brothers Racing’s No. 32 Toyota.

Last time: Brett Moffitt beat Ben Rhodes and Johnny Sauter.

Click here for the entry list.