By Jerry Bonkowski
If the way the first two elimination races in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup played out are any indication, Kevin Harvick is in BIG trouble this Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
Wait a minute, you’re likely saying to yourself. Harvick has won the last four races, five of the last six and seven races overall at PIR, the most wins for him on any track on the circuit.
That’s almost one-third of his 31 career Sprint Cup wins. He literally owns the place. They ought to re-name the place Harvick International Raceway, right?
With such a stellar record, how could the Bakersfield, Calif., native be in big trouble? If anyone is a cinch to win Sunday in the Valley of the Sun, it’s the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
No, wrong – and the numbers back me up.
Indulge me for a few moments and you may very well see where I’m coming from.
Jimmie Johnson came into the final race of this year’s Chase first round at Dover with 10 career wins at the mile-long concrete track. Johnson, in the minds of most people, was a cinch to do well yet again at Dover and move onto Round 2 of the Chase.
Unfortunately for the 48 team, it didn’t happen that way. Rather, the worst possible thing that could happen, did: the six-time Sprint Cup champion was eliminated from the Chase.
Okay, that’s just a fluke, right?
(And ironically, it was Harvick who won at Dover to assure his advancement to Round 2.)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. came into the final and elimination race of Round 2 at Talladega in much the same fashion as Johnson did at Dover.
Junior had won six career races at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, the most of any active driver in the Cup series. He was looked upon as a lock to win there, which meant likely automatic advancement to Round 3.
Unfortunately, Earnhardt fell one position short – he finished second, not first – of what it would take for him to move on to the next round.
End result, Earnhardt joined Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson with the same inconsolable end result: Wait ‘till next year.
While Harvick comes into Phoenix with a boatload of confidence – winning the last four races at the one-mile flat track, plus he’s in third place in the Sprint Cup standings, just three points behind series leader Jeff Gordon – he could potentially be coming in with a false sense of security, too.
Coming into Phoenix, Harvick is just three points ahead of the final driver above the transition line into the final round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, fourth-ranked Martin Truex Jr.
From there, Carl Edwards is ranked fifth, seven points behind Truex. Brad Keselowski is sixth, 19 points behind Truex. Kurt Busch is seventh, 28 points behind.
And Joey Logano, who as recently as two weeks ago looked like the top candidate to win it all in 2015, is ranked eighth/last in the Chase, 63 points behind Truex.
Logano is unquestionably in a must-win situation Sunday at Phoenix. Sure, that’s a lot of pressure upon him, but it’s also a lot of pressure upon Harvick.
Logano, Keselowski, Edwards and Kurt Busch are all looking to rally to make the final round the following week. To do so, one of the guys they’ll have to knock out is Harvick.
If that happens, that would end Harvick’s hopes of repeating as Sprint Cup champ for the second consecutive season.
Harvick came into last year’s Chase race at Phoenix in a must-win situation to advance to the final round – and win is exactly what he did.
But after four straight wins at PIR, sooner or later his luck and good fortune is bound to come up short. Frankly, Harvick’s biggest rival Sunday – and potentially his biggest obstacle, as well – may not be his fellow drivers, but fate.
And if Harvick or his fans don’t believe in fate, just have them ask Johnson or Junior. They’ll tell them how cruel fate can be.
Jerry Bonkowski writes for NBCSports.com’s NASCAR Talk and MotorSportsTalk. Follow him on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.