By Jared Turner
It’s extremely rare in this ultra-competitive age of stock-car racing that one driver enters a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race weekend as a clear and undisputed favorite to come out on top.
This Sunday’s showdown at Phoenix International Raceway would be one of those rare instances.
Fresh off a commanding victory and overall dominant performance last Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway where he led a race-high 142 of 267 laps, Kevin Harvick is the odds-on choice to prevail this Sunday in the Valley of the Sun.
That’s because in addition to starting the season off with three finishes of first or second, and carrying the momentum of his Vegas win, Harvick is NASCAR’s resident king of PIR.
How stout has the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion been in recent times at the flat, 1-mile track? He’s won four of the past five races there, most often with relative ease.
The most recent of those wins – last spring and last fall – came with the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team he joined in 2014 after 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing.
So to say that the driver nicknamed “Happy” is riding high into this weekend’s race might actually be an understatement. The fact is that he’s darn near thrilled to be back in the desert.
“I’ve always liked racing on the flat tracks like Phoenix,” Harvick said. “It’s similar to the tracks that most of us grew up racing on. Phoenix is a very challenging racetrack. It has a very unique layout that is different at both ends. I feel like I’ve been racing at Phoenix my entire career, and I feel that what I’ve learned there has helped me be successful on the other flat tracks we race at. The racetrack continues to change as it ages, so you’re always tweaking to keep up with the changes every time we head out there.”
Harvick’s win at Phoenix last November allowed him to be one of the four drivers to qualify for the next weekend’s one-race, winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway where Harvick took the win and the championship over second-place finisher Ryan Newman.
Newman is one driver with perhaps a legitimate shot to slow down Harvick’s momentum in Phoenix, a track where he, too, is a past winner.
“Phoenix it has always been two racetracks in one,” said Newman, who went to Victory Lane at PIR in 2010 as a driver for Stewart-Haas Racing. “Turns 1 and 2 are totally different from turns 3 and 4. But you can get a balance on both of them that make your car pretty good. The guy that gets that and nails it is usually the standout. It’s a fun racetrack. … It’s actually widened out some too, which is good. It’s our first short track, so it’s kind of a litmus test for that part of the season.”
Making Harvick’s mastery of PIR the past few seasons all the more impressive is that the track is one that’s not easily figured out.
“Just getting that balance at Phoenix between one end and the other the dogleg is kind of its own little non-event turn, but other than that it’s keeping good corner speed,” Newman said. “I would say getting off of Turn 2 is really important for the dogleg and the back straightaway. Getting off of Turn 4 is a lot easier than getting off of (Turn) 2 with speed.”
But the biggest challenge of all might be keeping up with Harvick’s No. 4 car.
“I think everybody believes in each other so much and is on the same page that you just almost know what each other is thinking about as far as when it comes to the race car,” Harvick said of his team’s strong start to 2015. “That makes it fun.”