AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Kevin Harvick has been nearly unstoppable since he charged to his first Sprint Cup championship last season.
The overwhelming favorite to win Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway, Harvick could realistically have a shot at a three-race sweep of NASCAR’s current West Coast swing. He picked up his first win of the season last week at Las Vegas, has proved himself almost unbeatable at Phoenix, and has had strong showings at California, next week’s venue.
Although the possibility exists that he could sweep this trip, Harvick said his Stewart-Haas Racing team has not discussed it once.
“We never talk about stuff like that,” he said. “We don’t talk about things we’ve done. We always talk about the things we do wrong and we talk about the things that we need to do different. It’s never really anything about last week. It’s always about next week and the things that we have to do to try to be prepared when we come to the race track.”
There’s zero doubt that Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers came prepared to Phoenix.
Harvick won the pole, his first at Phoenix, and closed Saturday with both the fastest lap in final practice and the best 10-lap average.
He has won four of the last five races at Phoenix, and has six career victories at a track he considers one of his favorite on the circuit. As Harvick talked this weekend of how it will take a mistake by the No. 4 team or a fluke for him to lose on Sunday, the rest of the field worked on their equipment and tried not to accept their inevitable fate.
Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano, who will start second behind Harvick on Sunday, was unwilling to throw in the towel.
“He is human like anyone else,” Logano said. “He is beatable, believe me. We just have to figure out the way to do it. He knows something running here — he just knows what he needs in the race car. I think it is something he looks for and a feel that he is able to maintain his tires throughout a long run.
“I think that is what we all strive for, to figure that part out. We have identified that is where he beats us, we have to fix it. Half the battle is figuring out where you are getting beat.”
NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip, currently an analyst for Fox, believes the No. 4 team has the competition beat each week before the car is even unloaded at the track. Through preparation at the shop, Harvick and Childers have the luxury of spending the weekend fine-tuning in race trim.
“They’re basically unbeatable,” Waltrip said. “While Harvick is a great driver, what makes the No. 4 team so tough to beat is that the car is so fast every week. They’re setting the mark.”
Dating back to last season, Harvick has six consecutive top-two finishes, has won three of the last six races and used his win at Phoenix last year to catapult his championship run. He opened this season with two runner-up finishes before winning last week.
Waltrip likens this current dominance to the run Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus had as they racked up five consecutive championships and six overall.
“Smart crew chief, fast car and great driver,” he said of Johnson and Knaus. “It’s the same scenario with the No. 4 car now and the same mojo. It’s equally as hard to beat Harvick now as it was to beat Johnson a few years ago.”
Other things going on at Phoenix International Raceway:
PATRICK AT HOME: Danica Patrick still owns a house in Phoenix, so she came directly from Las Vegas to spend the week catching up with friends.
But it’s been back to work this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, where she’ll start 23rd on Sunday. She’s still adjusting to new crew chief Daniel Knost, who moved to her team with three races remaining last season in a crew swap with Kurt Busch. Knost is in his second year as a Sprint Cup Series crew chief.
After developing a rapport with former crew chief Tony Gibson, she said she’s still trying to get on the same page with Knost. Misinterpreted feedback last week led to the wrong in-race adjustments.
“You can’t bridge the gap between something that you spent two years working on (with Gibson) to something that you’ve been working on for a couple of races,” she said. “What is exciting is the potential of what could be because we are both so green. So far, we’ve worked really well together. It’s been really easy.”
ALLMENDINGER TO THE BACK: JTG-Daugherty Racing decided between practices Saturday to swap the engine in AJ Allmendinger’s car. The change means Allmendinger will start at the back of the field Sunday.
Allmendinger said the temperatures were high on the engine during first practice, and the Earnhardt Childress Racing engine was pulled.
“We didn’t qualify as well as we wanted to anyway, so we decided to take the opportunity to change it now and eliminate any doubts,” crew chief Brian Burns said. “We have a good race car and ECR Engines have been awesome all year. We are just taking some precautionary measures to make sure we are good to go to the end.”
Allmendinger, who was supposed to start 22nd, is coming off consecutive top-10 finishes. He was sixth last weekend at Las Vegas.
He said the ECR engines have been extremely reliable.
“What has been awesome about this whole ECR package is this is the first time I’ve had something like this happen in over a year,” he said.
SAFETY TALK: Jeff Gordon met with NASCAR officials this week to discuss concerns he has about safety, but walked away from the meeting convinced the sanctioning body is determined to improve race tracks as fast as possible.
As promised, the four-time champion is sharing details of his meeting with other drivers. It’s at least put Denny Hamlin at ease as the series prepares to head to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, next week.
Hamlin broke his back when he hit a wall that lacked a SAFER barrier in 2013. The track this week said it will be installing tire packs in areas deemed necessary, and SAFER barriers will be added after next week’s race.
“I think more and more now we’re starting to put more eyes on where SAFER barriers are,” Hamlin said. “From talks that I’ve had with Jeff, I believe the meeting he had with NASCAR was well and they’re doing everything they can to make sure the changes are happening as fast as they can. I’m assuming that the job is going to get done quickly and right.”
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