AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — There have been dominant drivers in NASCAR before, seasons where Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson would reel off win after win to break the spirits of the rest of the garage.
Dale Earnhardt had stretches where he was unbeatable, Tony Stewart’s had his share of hot streaks, and Rusty Wallace had an unbelievable 1993 season that opened with four wins in eight races.
But it has been 41 years since NASCAR has seen a run like the one Kevin Harvick is making across the country.
The defending Sprint Cup champion won his fourth consecutive race at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday with yet another rout of the field. The 42 other drivers knew this was Harvick’s race to win, and he made it look easy.
He led more than 200 laps for the third straight time at Phoenix, where he has won five of the last six races and a record seven overall.
More important, he continued a streak of dominance that dates to last season. He has seven consecutive top-two finishes and has won four of the last six races, which includes the final two of last year’s championship season. Dating back to the Chase last season, Harvick has won five of the last 10 races.
He opened this season with two runner-up finishes, then won last week at Las Vegas and now Phoenix.
The last driver score seven consecutive top-two finishes? Hall of Famer Richard Petty in 1974.
“When you said the Richard Petty part, that gives me chills,” Harvick said after learning the Petty stat.
He then praised his Rodney Childers-led team, which has given him unbelievable race cars since he first climbed in the No. 4 Chevrolet in late 2013.
“I feel like we get better as we go through different situations,” Harvick said. “You see these guys hang out together, how mellow everybody is, how everybody gets along. It’s really, really special to be a part of. It’s scary how well we get along with each other. I don’t want to talk about it sometimes so I don’t jinx it.”
Harvick now heads to California looking to sweep NASCAR’s three-race West Coast swing. It’s not out of the question, particularly with how well he’s running. But Harvick won at Auto Club Speedway in 2011, and has been among the best drivers there since 2009.
“I think at this point, everybody just expects you to keep winning. That’s what makes it hard on all of us,” Childers said. “We’ve got a team that can do that. We have a driver that can do that. We have the resources to do that. The more you win, the more you expect out of yourself and the more pressure you put on yourself.”
And although Harvick denied earlier this weekend that he headed west determined to take all three races, Childers admitted Sunday it’s been the goal since they grabbed Las Vegas a week ago.
“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.”
Two late cautions forced Harvick to sweat a little bit, as he twice had to hold off Jamie McMurray on restarts to preserve his victory.
He cleared McMurray on the final restart with 12 laps remaining and beat the Chip Ganassi Racing driver by 1.154 seconds.
Ryan Newman was third and followed by Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch as Chevrolet drivers took the top five spots.
It was a strong run for Busch, who was making his season debut following a NASCAR suspension that lasted the first three races. He was sidelined for an alleged domestic assault on a former girlfriend, but reinstated this week and promptly returned to Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 41 Chevrolet.
“I’ve got a strong team, and personally, it’s great to get back to them,” Busch said. “The way we raced today was with heart.”
It wasn’t a perfect day for SHR, though.
Team co-owner Stewart, in desperate need of a good finish, crashed out of his third race of the season. He wound up 39th and has not finished higher than 30th this season.
He had been much improved, though, and had steadily picked his way through the field — at times showing his fiery side by nudging both Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon out of his way — and into the top 10. But he spun while racing Justin Allgaier, had to go to pit road for repairs, and lost three laps before he got back on the track.
Stewart later slammed hard into the outside wall to bring out the first of two late cautions.
Stewart is 36th in the Sprint Cup Standings, seven points behind teammate Busch, who missed three races. He’s the lowest ranked driver who has competed in every event.
“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.”
Busch, who needs to be 30th or better in the points and win a race to make NASCAR’s championship field, is 33rd in the standings after one race. But, he’s only 17 points out of 30th.
“We’re not going to think about points,” Busch said. “Gene Haas has got me under contract to go win races, and that’s what I want to do.”
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