(ABC Sports) – AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kevin Harvick qualified only 13th for the Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. But long before the green flag, his competition pegged him as the man to beat.
Correctly, as it turns out.
Harvick led 224 of 312 laps in a dominant performance to claim his first victory for Stewart-Haas Racing. The Bakersfield, Calif., native kept his cool through a series of late-race restarts to hold offDale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano for the win.
After he answered questions throughout the winter about his move to Stewart-Haas after spending his entire 13-year Sprint Cup career with Richard Childress Racing, Harvick’s performance on the track proved that he made the right decision. He has won a record five times at Phoenix, including three of the six races run since the famous desert mile was reprofiled and repaved.
“Just a huge credit to the team, the organization and everyone who has been a part of this process over the winter,” Harvick said following his 24th career Sprint Cup race win. “I’m just the lucky guy that gets to drive the car around the racetrack when it’s dialed in like it was today.
“This has been a great racetrack for us through the years, before the repave and after the repave,” he continued. “These are the types of tracks I was brought up on. I used to come here to the Copper World Classic, and that was our Daytona 500. I feel like the flat tracks are something that we’ve had a knack at.”
It certainly looked that way Sunday. Harvick worked quickly through the field, and by the time NASCAR threw a competition caution on Lap 35, he was already in second place. By Lap 75, he was in command, ceding the lead only during pit stop exchanges.
While the first half of the race was fast and green, the second half was interrupted by a series of cautions that put Harvick’s restart skills to the test. He passed with flying colors, his only worry being a couple of taps on his rear bumper by Logano going into Turn 1.
“You’re always concerned, because the restarts can be really crazy,” Harvick remarked. “You’re vulnerable as the leader, especially with the third-place car anticipating your moves. Joey had been knocking on the bumper all day long and I spun the tires a couple times. But we’ve been talking about the restart [gear] ratios for a couple months and they got it right today.
“I felt like Junior had the second-best car, but I was more worried about the 22 [Logano] because of his position on the restarts. I just needed to make sure we didn’t get spun out.”
Just like Matt Kenseth‘s move to Joe Gibbs Racing a year ago, the change in scenery to a new team seems to have lit a fire under Harvick. Kenseth said he wanted to get an early win to give the Gibbs team confidence, and Harvick certainly succeeded in doing that in only his second start for Stewart-Haas.
Under the guidance of crew chief Rodney Childers, the No. 4 team has certainly jelled quickly. In addition to having a fast car, Harvick enjoyed the fastest pit service of anyone Sunday.
“There has been a lot of skepticism through the offseason,” Harvick admitted. “But all in all, Gene Haas has given us every resource you can imagine, and he and Tony have been very supportive of what we want to do. The sky is the limit for this team. Everybody is still trying to learn each other’s names, let alone what’s going on with the race car.
“Gene says the enthusiasm is contagious at SHR,” he added. “You’re only as good as the people around you, and I’m honored to drive that car into Victory Lane.”
There was potential for it to be an even better day for Stewart-Haas, because Stewart and Kurt Busch were running in the top 10 late in the race. But Busch blew a motor and Stewart faded to a 16th-place finish.
Danica Patrick spun several times and finished 36th.
“That’s pretty cool — just awesome,” Stewart said of Harvick’s victory. “Kevin had the best car yesterday in practice so I’m glad to see those guys finish it off today.
“You never how it’s going to be, for sure,” he added. “The one thing is Kevin had a lot of confidence in Rodney. I didn’t know Rodney that well, but Kevin is pretty keen about all aspects of this. He’s been real confident all winter, and today it showed. They’ve been working hard.”
Childers, who joined SHR this year after a long stint with Michael Waltrip Racing, was elated to score a win so early in the season.
“It’s all been great so far,” Childers said. “I’m fortunate that Kevin and Zippy [Stewart-Haas competition director Greg Zipadelli] and Smoke believed in me. I haven’t been told ‘no’ to anything yet. Maybe that will change when some bills come in, but it has been rewarding to work on such fast race cars.
“It’s hard to stay on top and keep your cars in a competitive mode,” Childers continued. “We just need to keep working hard and hopefully maintain that advantage. We’ve got a lot of learning to do, and a lot of growing to do. But this has given me confidence that we can do this and we will. You feed off that. We’ve got to keep making ourselves better. We made too many mistakes this weekend, and fortunately we were able to overcome that.”
Meanwhile, Earnhardt was competitive all weekend and backed up his Daytona 500 win with a strong second-place finish. He holds an early lead in the Sprint Cup point standings over Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon, with Harvick fourth.
By winning the first two races of the season, Earnhardt and Harvick almost certainly have already qualified for NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup postseason that starts in mid-September.
“Some teams and drivers have struggled with the new package and the new rules, but I’m glad the performance is there for us,” Earnhardt remarked. “Hopefully we can maintain it.
“I think our Chase performance [in 2013] got us pretty confident and made us happy to look forward to this season,” Earnhardt continued. “It’s hard to take a lot away from two races; it’s such a long season and so many things could happen. We just have to work harder than everybody else.”
Earnhardt and the No. 88 team fell just short in their quest for a second straight race win, but he still came away from Phoenix happy and confident.
“We didn’t have enough race car all day, and he was just a little bit faster,” Earnhardt said. “For whatever reason, that last run, we reeled him in a little bit and cut the lead probably in half. We just needed another 10 laps, I guess.”
Harvick and Childers targeted an early-season victory, and Phoenix resulted in mission accomplished. It’s obvious that Harvick is — well, happy — in his new environment at SHR.
“There’s a lot of pressure when you have a fast car, especially when you’re so early in a situation with a new team and everything,” he said. “This is a hard sport; it’s difficult to win. You need to enjoy each win because it might be your last one.
“This just solidifies so many things and so many decisions,” he added. “It doesn’t seem like a job; it seems like everyone wants to be here and have fun doing it. It’s just a different atmosphere for me.”