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.

NASCAR community grieves, prays for those affected by Las Vegas shooting

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The NASCAR community joined the country in waking up Monday to horrific images of panicked concertgoers ducking or running while a gunman fired hundreds of shots into the crowd in Las Vegas.

The staggering toll of more than 50 people killed and more than 500 injured made it the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that everybody from the industry who had been in Las Vegas for Saturday night’s Camping World Truck Series race was reported safe.

Police urged families looking to locate missing loved ones to call 1-866-535-5654.

The NASCAR community offered prayers and thoughts to the those affected by the tragedy.

 and on Facebook

Kyle Busch, Joey Logano put Las Vegas incident behind them and move on

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Friday very likely marked official closure to last Sunday’s post-race incident at Las Vegas between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.

After not issuing penalties earlier in the week, NASCAR officials further reaffirmed it’s point of view when it met with both drivers Friday morning at Phoenix Raceway, telling the drivers what it expected from both of them from here on out.

MORE: NASCAR meets with Kyle Busch, Joey Logano at Phoenix

After the 15-minute meeting, both drivers then went out for practice and qualifying for Sunday’s Camping World 500 Cup race. As it turned out, Logano went out and made the biggest statement by winning the pole, while Busch will start ninth.

“I woke up this morning thinking about our race car and how we can end up sitting here at the end of the day,” Logano said. “That is the goal. In between, do I have to think about other things? Yeah, obviously we had that meeting today and there were a lot of distractions that we don’t typically have.

“But it is a matter of managing those distractions and getting your head back in the right spot for when it is game time. I was able to use everything the right way, use our tools and our people around me to help me get my mind back where it needs to be and be able to focus and lay down a good lap.”

Busch began a post-qualifying interview with Fox Sports 1 by saying pretty much the same thing he said after he left the morning meeting with NASCAR.

“Everything’s great, I’m back at the racetrack and I’m in my race car, so that’s why everything is great,” Busch said.

But then Busch got serious, hinting about dodging a possible penalty from NASCAR for his swing at Logano on pit road after Sunday’s race at Las Vegas.

“You had the opportunity to have something else happen during the week and it didn’t, so it’s good to be back at the track, here at Phoenix and the west coast swing,” Busch told FS1. “I’m loving the time out here.”

But Busch likely is not loving the start of the 2017 season for him and the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry.

He comes into Sunday’s race ranked 19th in the Cup standings, the result of having finished 36th in the Daytona 500, 16th at Atlanta and 22nd after wrecking on the last lap at Las Vegas.

That’s why it’s so important he does well Sunday at Phoenix, a track where he has one career Cup win, six top-fives and 15 top-10 finishes in 23 starts there.

“All-in-all, just looking forward to being able to get a good solid run here,” Busch told FS1. “We haven’t had one yet this year, we need one and just get our rhythm going.”

Logano, meanwhile, is having a stellar start thus far in 2017, with sixth-place finishes at Daytona and Atlanta and fourth at Las Vegas. He comes into this weekend fifth in the NASCAR Cup season standings, 13 points behind series leader Brad Keselowski.

So where do the former teammates go from here?

“I think we will race the same as we always have,” Logano said. “If you think about it. We have been racing each other for nine years and you think about the amount of Xfinity races and Cup races that is, because we both run a lot of races together.

“Not only running them but we have raced each other for first and second a lot and we have never had an issue. I look at Kyle as one of the drivers I had the best relationship with. I am sure we will get back to that point. Obviously it will take a little time, that is just part of it. We have never had an issue. It wasn’t anything intentional. We will be able to push through this.”

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Jimmie Johnson enjoying and savoring his historic championship (video)

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Champion’s week is underway in Las Vegas, which means Jimmie Johnson gets to continue his celebration as champion. Johnson discusses with NASCAR America how he will approach speaking about his journey at the award’s banquet.

Kurt Busch taking meetings about potential return to Indy 500

(Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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As of now, there won’t be a representative of NASCAR in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. But that could change in the coming weeks, as Kurt Busch is the only NASCAR driver who seems to have an eye on the race.

Busch competed in the 2014 Indianapolis 500, becoming the first driver to run in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day in 10 years. He gave an update on his Indy 500 prospects Friday after winning the pole for today’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“Nothing new on Indy,” Busch said. “Part of the reason for staying here in Vegas extra is a few different meetings have popped up. We are going to go through some of the meetings, even bumped into Sam Schmidt today. There is definitely the interest, the intrigue, but nothing to announce right now.”

Sam Schmidt is the co-owner of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Schmidt will field the entries of James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin in 2016. Busch drove the No. 26 for Andretti Autosport in the 2014 Indy 500.

Busch started 12th and finished sixth and won the race’s Rookie of the Year award.