NASCAR Barometer: Harvick's Domination Continues In Las Vegas

NASCAR Barometer: Harvick's Domination Continues In Las Vegas

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Kevin Harvick's pace in practice and qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was no joke. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver had an impressive qualifying effort to start on the front row and quickly leapt out to the lead once Sunday's race got underway. He mimicked Martin Truex Jr.'s 2017 performance by sweeping every stage en route to a dominating victory and now heads to one of his best circuits in Phoenix – ISM Raceway. Could he replicate the No. 78 team's championship success as well?

The third race of the 2018 season has shown that the Ford-powered teams continue to enjoy an advantage. That likely will continue through at least the next two races as teams generally based on the East Coast will have little ability to significantly alter the equipment at their disposal given the logistics of racing on the opposite side of the country. What that means is that smart money will be on Harvick being the early favorite for this week's race in Phoenix, where the driver of the No. 4 has eight career wins.

UPGRADE

Kevin Harvick – Harvick came out of the corner swinging again in Las Vegas. He was one of the fastest cars throughout practice and qualifying, and dominated every bit of Sunday's race. He won both opening stages of Sunday's race on another dominant day before cruising home to victory in the final stage to claim his 13th win on 1.5-mile ovals. Winning on

Kevin Harvick's pace in practice and qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was no joke. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver had an impressive qualifying effort to start on the front row and quickly leapt out to the lead once Sunday's race got underway. He mimicked Martin Truex Jr.'s 2017 performance by sweeping every stage en route to a dominating victory and now heads to one of his best circuits in Phoenix – ISM Raceway. Could he replicate the No. 78 team's championship success as well?

The third race of the 2018 season has shown that the Ford-powered teams continue to enjoy an advantage. That likely will continue through at least the next two races as teams generally based on the East Coast will have little ability to significantly alter the equipment at their disposal given the logistics of racing on the opposite side of the country. What that means is that smart money will be on Harvick being the early favorite for this week's race in Phoenix, where the driver of the No. 4 has eight career wins.

UPGRADE

Kevin Harvick – Harvick came out of the corner swinging again in Las Vegas. He was one of the fastest cars throughout practice and qualifying, and dominated every bit of Sunday's race. He won both opening stages of Sunday's race on another dominant day before cruising home to victory in the final stage to claim his 13th win on 1.5-mile ovals. Winning on back-to-back weekends is a difficult task in the Cup series, but this team seems to have nothing going against them right now. Harvick also has been astonishing at Phoenix. He has eight wins from 30 starts along with an incredible 19 top-10s. He hasn't finished outside of the top 10 at the track since he came home 13th in 2013.

Ryan Blaney – Blaney qualified on pole for Sunday's Las Vegas race, and presented himself extremely well throughout practice and qualifying. Harvick overshadowed him once the green flag waved, but that didn't stand in the way of an impressive run for the young Penske Racing driver. His top-five was an impressive performance considering he had the measure of both of his more experienced teammates all afternoon. While trouble on a late pit stop dropped him back from the runner up position, he still recovered to make the most of the day. Blaney has two top-10 finishes from four career Phoenix starts and remains one of my top prospects for the 2018 championship.

Joey Logano – Aside from Harvick and Blaney, Logano was the only other driver who truly made his presence felt at the front of the field throughout the entire 400 miles on Sunday. The Penske Racing driver was overshadowed by his teammates in the first two races of the season but demonstrated that he still can contend. Sunday's top-10 should give the team confidence with which they can move forward and build upon. He won in Phoenix in the fall of 2016 but had a best finish of 12th at the track last season. Ford has the upper hand on the competition at the moment, and Logano will work hard to make sure he makes the most of that advantage while it exists.

Kyle Busch – Busch drove an impressive race on Sunday to finish second behind the streaking Harvick. His car clearly evolved throughout the race to become its fastest in the final fuel run. Hitting the setup earlier could make the difference. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver isn't quite feeling the pressure he was experiencing this time last season, but Toyota does seem to be at a bit of a disadvantage when compared to the dominant Ford teams. Still, consistent top-five finishes are great results for fantasy players, and the wins will come as long as those efforts continue. Busch's lone Phoenix victory came all the way back in 2005, but with five top-10 finishes in the last five races, he should contend this week.

Kyle Larson – Larson clearly was the top Chevrolet in Las Vegas. He was quick in practice and backed up that speed by running confidently inside the top five throughout Sunday afternoon. While the new body style has caused teams like Hendrick Motorsports plenty of trouble, Larson seems to be finding the hang of it. That could make the early difference as he can perfect an already powerful setup later in the season. Larson not only challenged the Ford drivers in practice for Sunday's race, but he was a fixture inside the top five throughout the race distance as well. In eight Phoenix starts Larson has three top-10 finishes. He suffered an engine failure there last fall but was runner up in the spring.

DOWNGRADE

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin didn't have the greatest end to 2017 due to his feud with Chase Elliot, and the bad vibes continued right into 2018. Hamlin suffered a penalty early in Sunday's Las Vegas race and spent the middle portion of the race down a lap to the leader. He was still one lap down as the race entered the final segment and only managed to work his way into 17th position before the race ended. Despite strong finishes in the first two races of the season, the team must believe they are capable of more, but it seems they have a long road to cover before catching Harvick. Hamlin has one Phoenix victory (2012). He has four top-10 results from the last five races at the track, however.

Jamie McMurray – McMurray was running just outside of the top 10 when a deflated tire caused contact with the outside wall to bring out the first unscheduled caution of the race. This team entered the 2018 season with high expectations given how well they fared in 2017, but it appears as though they may be a step behind the competition after the offseason. They'll need to work doubly hard to close that gap. McMurray has just two top-five finishes from 29 career starts at Phoenix. He finished sixth there last season, which was his first top-10 at the circuit since finishing second in the spring of 2015. Right now the playoffs could be out of this team's reach, and significant changes will need to occur.

Kurt Busch – Busch lost traction on a restart that caused contact with Chase Elliott, ending the afternoon for both drivers. Both cars had been running well prior to the issue, but the loose condition was enough to send both drivers home wondering what could have been. While Las Vegas has been a horrible venue for Busch, Phoenix has been better. He won at the desert oval in 2005 and had a string of five top-10 finishes there until back-to-back finishes outside of the top 20 in 2017. His average finish at the track is 13.7 from 30 career starts. He hasn't been off the pace so far this season, but he can't afford mistakes like last week's to impact his drive to bag an early win.

Chase Elliott – Is Elliott's poor luck destined to plague him throughout 2018? The Hendrick Motorsports driver should have won a race in the series by this time, but he's still searching for that first trip to Victory Lane. He was in the hunt for a top-10 finish before he was caught between a loose Kurt Busch and the wall, but now he heads to Phoenix on the back of a DNF. While he has three top-10 finishes from four Phoenix starts, fantasy owners have to be wondering when his bad luck is going to vacate the premises. Elliott still has plenty of potential, but every week a top finish slips through his fingers the pressure will only build. How he handles that pressure could be career defining.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Aric Almirola – Almirola must be enjoying his new lease on life in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing machine. The former Richard Petty Motorsports driver was used to fighting for top-20 finishes, but he's already been in position to win the Daytona 500 and bagged his first top-10 for the team in Las Vegas. He has been knocking on the door of top finishes in each of the first three races so far this season and is living up to the potential he has shown as a driver with this new equipment. He already has two top-10 finishes in Phoenix, and one of them was last fall when he finished ninth. Fantasy players may want to reserve an early selection for him this week.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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