AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — When NASCAR headed west two weeks ago, it seemed implausible that one driver could sweep the three-race swing. Three different style race tracks, teams worn down from travel and incredibly short turnaround times simply made it too daunting of a task.
Well, Kevin Harvick and his Rodney Childers-led Stewart-Haas Racing team are now one win away from a West Coast sweep.
Harvick won Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, where he is simply unbeatable. Harvick has won five of the last six races at Phoenix, and a record seven overall.
Back-to-back wins at Las Vegas and Phoenix sends his team to Fontana, California, needing just one more victory to run the table.
“When we left Vegas last week, he made a point to say, ‘I want to win all three of these West Coast races,'” Childers said. “I think anybody that knows Kevin Harvick, if he puts his head to something, he’s going to try to make it happen.”
Harvick has been on a run not seen in NASCAR in at least 40 years.
He has seven consecutive top-two finishes dating to last season, and he has won five of the last 10 races.
The last driver to score seven consecutive top-two finishes? Hall of Famer Richard Petty in 1975.
“When you said the Richard Petty part, that gives me chills,” Harvick said.
Harvick now has his eyes on California, and won’t be reliving Las Vegas or Phoenix as he approaches the final leg of this tour.
“You just have to forget about what you did,” he said. “These guys are really good at just, you know, being happy about what we did last week, not talking about anything other than what we’re going to do at California next week, how we prepare for that, not taking your eye off the prize, staying focused on what we need to do for California.”
Here are a couple more things to note from the Phoenix race:
BUSCH’S RETURN: Kurt Busch made a strong return to racing in his first event since NASCAR lifted his suspension for an alleged domestic assault against an ex-girlfriend.
He was fifth in his season debut, and even chased teammate Harvick late in the race for the lead.
That made for an emotional moment inside the car for Busch, who missed three races after NASCAR suspended him two days before the Daytona 500.
“When you have that sense of pride of running 1-2, I knew the race shop was probably going bananas on us running so well,” Busch said. “That’s the emotional side of it, of working through all the different things I’ve been through this offseason. Stewart-Haas Racing has been my family.”
Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Gene Haas acknowledged he was “a little bit stunned” when Busch got suspended right before the Daytona 500, but praised the organization and the No. 41 Chevrolet crew for staying the course during Busch’s absence.
“Kurt now is back in the car,” Haas said. “I think he’s razor focused. He appreciates that driving at this level is a privilege.”
McMURRAY’S NEAR MISS: Jamie McMurray finished a season-high second, but thinks he could have executed the final restart against Harvick differently and maybe won the race.
McMurray actually beat Harvick out of the first two turns, but didn’t feel he was clear enough of his car to slide in front of Harvick. It allowed Harvick to catch and pass McMurray in the next two turns, and then drive away for the win.
“If I could do my restart over again right now, I would have done something a little different. But it is what it is,” McMurray said. “I’m really happy with second. It would be nice to be in victory lane.”
UP IN SMOKE: Tony Stewart arrived in Phoenix 35th in the Sprint Cup standings and in desperate need of a good finish.
His third crash in four races sent him on to California 36th in the standings, with no finish higher than 30th this season.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli said. “For them to come out of here further behind where they went in, it’s disheartening. But everybody knows tough things don’t come easy. They are going to have to work hard, stay positive and try to turn it around one bite at a time.”
Stewart crashed out of Daytona and Atlanta, and struggled all of Las Vegas with his car.
Then came Phoenix, where he actually made significant progress inside the top 10 until he spun while racing Justin Allgaier for position.
He had to pit for repairs, went down three laps, and later slammed into the wall to end his race with a 39th-place finish.
ANOTHER TRUEX TOP 10: Martin Truex Jr.’s strong start to the season continued at Phoenix, where he set a record for Furniture Row Racing.
Truex’s seventh-place finish was his fourth straight, making him the first Furniture Row Racing driver to claim four consecutive top-10 finishes. Truex opened the season with an eighth at Daytona, sixth at Atlanta and second at Las Vegas.
He is third in the Sprint Cup standings.
“I felt like we had a better car than that,” Truex said.
Crew chief Cole Pearn agreed.
“I felt we underachieved,” said Pearn. “I felt we were a second or third-place car.”
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