AVONDALE, Ariz. — When it comes to Phoenix International Raceway, there’s Kevin Harvick and then there’s the rest.
Harvick owns seven career Sprint Cup Series wins at the Desert Mile, including triumphs in the four most recent races and five of the past six.
PIR is calling itself “Jeff Gordon Raceway” this weekend, but since Gordon won the spring 2011 race at Phoenix and the oval was reprofiled and repaved, Harvick is the man who has practically owned the place.
“Honestly, the 4 car [Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet] is fast here,” said Team Penske’s Joey Logano, who needs a win at Phoenix to qualify for next weekend’s championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “I’ve re-watched the spring race, and he was lights-out fast, for sure. He’s been like that the last few times here, so we’ve got our work cut out for sure.
“But like we’ve seen plenty of times in these races this year, you never know what’s going to happen. Yes, that car has been the fastest one here the last few times, but a lot of times, the fastest car doesn’t always win.”
Harvick knows that. Last year, he dominated the Sprint Cup Series in laps led, but he found himself in the same position that Logano is in this year, needing a win at Phoenix in order to advance to Homestead. The Bakersfield, California, native did that, then won at Homestead to clinch his first career Sprint Cup Series championship.
This year, Harvick has led almost as many laps (2,105) in the first 34 races as he did throughout all of 2014 (2,137). And he arrived at Phoenix in a better position, ranking third in the standings among Chase-eligible drivers with a 10-point advantage over fifth-place Carl Edwards.
Now, he has the opportunity to score five consecutive wins at the same track for only the third time in NASCAR’s 65-year history. Richard Petty won seven straight races at Richmond International Raceway, while Darrell Waltrip compiled win streaks of seven at Bristol Motor Speedway and five at North Wilkesboro.
With only Gordon locked into the championship round thanks to his win two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway, a solid top-five run at Phoenix should be enough for Harvick to earn the right to compete for a championship at Homestead for the second year running. But even with his recent success at PIR, Harvick refuses to believe winning again will be an easy task.
“I feel like that can be gone at any point — that’s the hardest thing about having success,” he said. “You have to go there with a fresh start like you’ve never won there before and try to get the car dialed in.”
Crew chief Rodney Childers and Harvick have become masters at that.
“He has a keen sense to find more speed than anybody else,” is how teammate Kurt Busch sums up Harvick’s uncanny feel for the flat Phoenix mile. “He is able to find the last little bit out of this track that nobody else has been able to find over the years.”
Busch is hoping for a bit of help from his teammate this weekend. Currently seventh in the standings, 28 points behind fourth-place Martin Truex, Busch essentially needs a win at Phoenix to earn his way to Homestead.
Harvick refused to say whether he would go out of his way to help Busch on Sunday, resolutely sticking to the tunnel vision, one-race-at-a-time approach that has served him so well.
That’s especially important in the high-pressure environment NASCAR created when it introduced the elimination format to the Chase a year ago.
“I haven’t really thought about any of that stuff to be honest with you,” he said Friday. “The only thing I’ve thought about this week was winning this race.”
By qualifying eighth, Harvick put himself in position to join Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson as the only drivers to win back-to-back Cup Series championships in the past 30 years. Earnhardt did it three times (1986-87, 1990-91 and 1993-94), while Johnson won five consecutive championships from 2006-10.
Johnson took the Phoenix pole, with Busch set to line up alongside.
“We didn’t qualify as well as we did last time [Harvick started from pole position in the spring race and from third on the grid for his win in November 2014], but our car handled really well in race trim when we practiced,” he said.
Four of Harvick’s seven Phoenix wins have come from ninth on the grid or further back, so he’s not overly concerned about overcoming traffic early in the race. In fact, his biggest concern is the relatively cool conditions (72 degrees and sunny) forecast for Sunday
“Track position is really important,” he said. “The cooler the day is, the more you have to manage your track position.”