LAS VEGAS (AP) — It sure looks as though Kevin Harvick hasn’t missed a beat since wrapping up his first career Sprint Cup title three months ago.
The 2014 champion grabbed his first win of the season on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he continued his hot start to his sophomore season at Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick finished second in the season-opening Daytona 500, was second last week at Atlanta and, dating to last season, has six consecutive top-two finishes.
He also has won three of the last six races dating to last season.
But he fretted through the offseason that his career year last season was an anomaly, and the results would not be the same as he tries to defend his title.
“I have been absolutely terrified that we would never sit up (on the podium) again,” Harvick said. “You have to figure out ways to motivate yourself and motivate our team, and for us, it’s just that motivation of trying to be the best you can in every practice and be the best that you can in qualifying.
“We’re going to celebrate it like it’s the last one. We’re going to approach next week like we’ve never won a race because that’s what keeps it fun and that’s what keeps us motivated.”
Except next up for Harvick? A stop at Phoenix, where Harvick has won four of the last five races. His November win pushed him into the championship race.
Harvick on Sunday led 142 of the 267 laps, and beat Martin Truex Jr. to the finish while battling a vibration that developed after his final pit stop.
“It got to be a handful there at the end,” Harvick said. “For whatever reason, we got really, really loose the last run. Tires started vibrating and we were just kind of hanging on. Glad the race is over for our own good.”
Harvick now has a win that gives him a near-certain berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, where he’d be guaranteed a shot to defend his title. The Chase format awards slots into the playoff via regular-season wins.
“It feels pretty good. I’m pretty excited about it,” Harvick said. “This whole Chase thing, there is a lot of strategy to get in to it. The best strategy is to go out and win races.”
SOME OTHER THINGS THAT HAPPENED AT LAS VEGAS:
KAHNE-EDWARDS: Kasey Kahne thought he might have had a chance to challenge Harvick for the win, but a scrape with Carl Edwards ruined his day.
Edwards slid up the track and into Kahne on lap 192, and the contact shoved Kahne into the outside wall. Kahne seemed to be retaliating in the next corner when he drove low onto the track and appeared to help Edwards spin.
Edwards had to go to the garage for repairs and finished 42nd. He also took blame for the accident.
“It’s completely my fault,” Edwards said. “Kasey did a good job. I just got sucked up into him coming off of Turn 4. I feel bad for Kasey.”
Kahne, who finished 17th, was frustrated.
“He just stayed in the gas,” Kahne said. “We just needed a full another car worth of racing room there, and he just plowed us into the wall. That was discouraging.”
BUSCH RETURN? Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Gene Haas doesn’t know when suspended driver Kurt Busch will be reinstated by NASCAR.
But Haas seemed to indicate Sunday that Busch will be back in the No. 41 when he’s cleared to compete. Haas said the organization wants to know if Busch will be eligible to race for the championship when he returns.
Busch was suspended two days before last month’s season-opening Daytona 500 for an alleged domestic assault against a former girlfriend. He was not criminally charged, and NASCAR said Busch is working with them toward reinstatement.
He’s missed three races, and would only be eligible for the Chase if NASCAR granted him a waiver.
Haas said after Harvick gave SHR its first win of the season on Sunday that he has no indication when Busch will be back in the car.
“At this time, that’s really up to NASCAR,” Haas said. “Some of our concerns are obviously does he come back, could he get into the Chase? Those issues really reside with NASCAR.”
ANOTHER STRONG TRUEX RUN: Truex continued his hot start to the season with a runner-up finish to Harvick on Sunday.
It was Truex’s best finish since he joined Furniture Row Racing last year, and he’s opened 2015 with three top-eight finishes.
Truex was also second and fifth in a pair of exhibition races at Daytona last month.
“It was just a solid weekend,” Truex said. “We were strong on Friday, and after two outstanding practices on Saturday we knew we had a hot rod that would contend for the win. We came up a little short, but there will be more opportunities to get that win.”
TWO BLOWN TIRES: Jimmie Johnson won last week at Atlanta and gave every indication he’d challenge for the win at Las Vegas.
But two blown tires led to a 41st-place finish for the six-time champion. He had led two different times for 45 laps before his race unraveled.
“The first one, they said the bead blew on it … that’s kind of a freak deal,” Johnson said. “The second one, it went soft. So there could have been some damage that caused it or some rub or something like that, and it went soft going into Turn 3 and I hit the wall, unfortunately.”
GANASSI GOOD DAY: It was a strong day for Chip Ganassi Racing, which put both its drivers in the top-11.
Kyle Larson finished eighth and Jamie McMurray was 11th in the most solid day this year for the organization.
“We can definitely build off this,” Larson said. “The first two weeks we were strong, but didn’t get the finishes we deserved.”
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