By John Marshall
AVONDALE, Ariz.: Kevin Harvick had a nice send-off with Richard Childress Racing, winning his penultimate race with the team at Phoenix International Raceway.
Back at Phoenix four months later, he stamped his arrival at Stewart-Haas Racing by winning the second race with his new team — doing it on the same weekend he celebrated his 13th wedding anniversary, no less.
Yeah, Harvick kind of likes it here in the desert.
Disappointed at the Daytona 500 after a last-lap crash, Harvick bounced back quickly by charging to the front and dominating the rest of the way Sunday to win consecutive races at PIR with different teams.
“Man, this is awesome,” Harvick said.
Harvick won the fall race after Carl Edwards ran out of fuel at the white flag.
He needed no help Sunday.
Harvick had the fastest car in practice and kept it rolling in the race, charging to the front after starting 13th and pretty much staying there. He led 224 of 312 laps on the odd-shaped mile oval and pulled away on several late restarts for his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup victory at PIR, passing Jimmie Johnson for the most at the track.
Not bad for someone who’s still trying to feel his way around with a new team and new crew chief Rodney Childers.
“It took long enough,” SHR co-owner Gene Haas joked. “This is phenomenal. I think there was a lot of skepticism last year about what myself and Tony [Stewart] what we were up to, was there a lot of madness to this. Quite frankly, it’s a great team, there’s a lot of synergy at the shop, people working together. I don’t know what we did, but I think we put together a great organization.”
Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second, pole sitter Brad Keselowski was third and Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano fourth.
Jeff Gordon rounded out the top five on a warm and partly cloudy day after downpours wiped out the final 32 laps of Saturday’s Nationwide race, won by Kyle Busch.
Harvick won at Phoenix during the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in the fall, giving him an outside shot at catching Johnson for the series title in his final season with Richard Childress Racing. He came up short, but the victory and a third-place finish in the standings gave him a bit of momentum heading into for his first season with Stewart-Haas.
Harvick had a solid finish in his sights at Daytona last week before a last-lap crash dropped him to 13th.
At Phoenix, Harvick just missed the final stage of knockout qualifying, nipped by 0.001 seconds, but had the fastest car in Saturday morning’s final practice session.
He had no trouble making his way through the field after the green flag dropped in the race, passing Keselowski on the apron, then Logano for the lead on lap 74. Harvick maintained the lead coming out of green-flag pit stops with just under 200 laps left and again with about 70 laps left.
A series of cautions came out late in the race and Harvick easily pulled away each time to earn a quick win with SHR, a nice capper to his anniversary weekend with wife DeLana.
“I’m just the lucky guy who gets to drive around the race track when they have dialed in like they did today,” Harvick said. “We were able to put it altogether.”
Earnhardt had a whirlwind week after winning his second Daytona 500, needing his girlfriend to get him extra clothes while he went on a media tour. He had a solid follow-up, putting the distractions aside to qualify fifth.
Earnhardt worked his way up in the opening third of the race, passing Logano and Keselowski to pull up behind Harvick. He dropped back a couple times and fought back to get Harvick within his sights again, but didn’t have enough to track him down.
“I’ve got to congratulate Kevin. Those guys were two-tenths faster than everyone all weekend in practice. They were just phenomenal,” Earnhardt said. “To be able to run with them all day was a big confidence builder for us.”
NASCAR’s new knockout qualifying system made its Sprint Cup debut at Phoenix and Keselowski came out on top, edging Logano for his fourth career pole.
Not long after that, Keselowski found out he would be without his crew chief for the race; Paul Wolfe left the desert back to North Carolina for the birth of his first child.
With team engineer Brian Wilson and its Nationwide Series competition director Greg Erwin at the helm, Keselowski ran near the front all day, but, like everyone else, didn’t have the speed to keep up with Harvick.
“They beat everybody before they came to the track today,” Keselowski said. “It’s a great combination. They were prepared for the weekend. To me, Randy Childers is like a rubber-stamp, carbon-copy of Paul Wolfe. He’s a great crew chief and it was just a matter of time before he found a combination that he excelled with.”