CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — To the surprise of none, Kevin Harvick won at Phoenix.
Now in a zone not seen in NASCAR in several years, Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers head to California amid a looming question: Can anyone stop the No. 4 team?
The only way Harvick was going to lose at Phoenix was if he or his Stewart-Haas Racing team made some sort of mistake that would derail the inevitable. It didn’t happen, and he routed the field Sunday while grabbing his fourth consecutive win at the Arizona short track.
It’s part of a streak that dates back to last season, when Harvick grabbed his first Sprint Cup championship. He’s won five of the last 10 races, two straight this season, and has seven consecutive top-two finishes.
His streak of top-two finishes is the longest since Hall of Famer Richard Petty did it during his 1975 championship season.
So now the No. 4 teams heads to California looking to sweep this three-race West Coast swing.
It’s left his competitors awe-struck at the chemistry that team has created in just over one year. Harvick moved from Richard Childress Racing to SHR after the 2013 season, and he and Childers sent a message to the entire garage area that December in their first test together when they were head-and-shoulders better than the rest of the field.
“I remember the days when Jeff Gordon won 13 races in a year. I remember watching every week, it was incredible,” said Jamie McMurray, runner-up to Harvick at Phoenix.
“I think our sport is much tougher now to do that. I remember when the 4 car unloaded at the Charlotte test last year, first lap on the track he was literally the fastest car. For a year it’s been that way.”
There have been other streaks in recent memory that rival Harvick: Tony Stewart won five of 10 Chase races in 2011; Jimmie Johnson won four straight Chase races in 2007, a run that rivaled his four wins in five races in 2004, when he fell eight points shy of his first title; and Gordon in 1998, when he won 13 times and finished first or second in 15 of the final 19 events.
So drivers do indeed cycle to the top of the Sprint Cup Series, and only Johnson, with five consecutive titles, has been able to maintain his grip as the best in NASCAR for any considerable length of time.
But until SHR shifts into R&D mode to prepare Harvick for the season-ending 10-race Chase for the championship, there’s no indication he can be stopped anytime soon.
If there was going to be a serious challenge, though, it would likely come from one of these drivers:
–JOEY LOGANO: The Daytona 500 winner is so far this season the only driver able to keep pace with Harvick. He has top-10 finishes in all four races and has started on the front row three times. He knew it was going to be tough to keep up with Harvick at Phoenix, where he led 35 laps but finished eighth.
He’s pretty good at California — remember, he was racing for the win against Denny Hamlin in 2013 when their accident left Hamlin with a broken back — and Team Penske is thought to have the best setups for grip in the garage.
–BRAD KESELOWSKI: The 2012 NASCAR champion was neck and neck with Harvick last year, and might have given Harvick a run for the title had he qualified for the championship round. His team has not shown the same muscle yet this season as Penske teammate Logano, but the No. 2 does not appear to be that far off.
Add in Keselowski’s relentless drive, and it’s hard to believe he won’t push the entire Penske organization to close the gap on Harvick.
–JEFF GORDON: The four-time NASCAR champion is coming off one of his finest seasons in several years, and many believe he would have won the championship if he had not been eliminated from contention with Harvick’s win at Phoenix last November.
Set to retire at the end of the season, he’s made it clear he wants to go out on top. Although his results haven’t come yet through the first month of the season, he can’t be counted out. Plus, his Hendrick Motorsports team uses the same chassis and engine package that Harvick gets at SHR.
–JIMMIE JOHNSON: Never count out the six-time champion or his crew chief Chad Knaus, who many believe are the model for Harvick and Childers.
Johnson is regarded as the most balanced, all-around driver in the field; like Gordon has the same chassis ad engine package as Harvick; and already has a win this season. That victory at Atlanta gives Knaus breathing room and time to make a plan for the Chase. The No. 48 team can take risks and have some fun the next few months, then turn attention to preparing for the final 10.
–KYLE BUSCH: Obviously, Busch won’t stop Harvick this year. He’s sidelined with a broken right leg and broken left foot suffered in a Feb. 21 crash at Daytona.
But, if were in the car, he’d be one of the guys to eventually challenge Harvick. Regarded as one of the fastest drivers in the field, Busch is also one of the only drivers who has consistently beaten Harvick in Xfinity Series competition over the years.
NASCAR’s 2015 rules have given the Cup cars an engine and aero package that is more similar to the Xfinity Series, which would give Busch a comfortable feel that could play to his advantage.
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