NASCAR Barometer: Harvick Takes Three In A Row

NASCAR Barometer: Harvick Takes Three In A Row

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Kevin Harvick scored his ninth-career victory and his third consecutive win this season at ISM Raceway on Sunday. It was the first time a driver over the age of 40 won three consecutive races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series since Harry Gant accomplished the feat more than two decades ago. The win was redemption for the No. 4 team after their win in Las Vegas was subject to a heavy penalty from NASCAR for a faulty rear-window brace.

This week, the series heads to Auto Club Speedway for the third and final race of the West Coast tour. Kyle Larson won that race last season, and with the Chevrolet teams finally starting to find the sweet spots in their new cars, fantasy owners could be seeing a Chevrolet in Victory Lane next week. They will have to topple the Ford of Kevin Harvick first, though.

UPGRADE

Kevin Harvick – Harvick had another enviable weekend in Phoenix but was second best throughout much of the distance. His practice times were among the best, but he didn't enjoy the same domination he had the past two weeks throughout Sunday's race. Still, his car was one of the best on long runs, and getting out front after the final round of pit stops gave him enough of a cushion to cruise to his third 2018 victory ahead of Kyle Busch's Toyota. Harvick now has 11 top-10 finishes from 24 career starts at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. He won at

Kevin Harvick scored his ninth-career victory and his third consecutive win this season at ISM Raceway on Sunday. It was the first time a driver over the age of 40 won three consecutive races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series since Harry Gant accomplished the feat more than two decades ago. The win was redemption for the No. 4 team after their win in Las Vegas was subject to a heavy penalty from NASCAR for a faulty rear-window brace.

This week, the series heads to Auto Club Speedway for the third and final race of the West Coast tour. Kyle Larson won that race last season, and with the Chevrolet teams finally starting to find the sweet spots in their new cars, fantasy owners could be seeing a Chevrolet in Victory Lane next week. They will have to topple the Ford of Kevin Harvick first, though.

UPGRADE

Kevin Harvick – Harvick had another enviable weekend in Phoenix but was second best throughout much of the distance. His practice times were among the best, but he didn't enjoy the same domination he had the past two weeks throughout Sunday's race. Still, his car was one of the best on long runs, and getting out front after the final round of pit stops gave him enough of a cushion to cruise to his third 2018 victory ahead of Kyle Busch's Toyota. Harvick now has 11 top-10 finishes from 24 career starts at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. He won at the track in 2011 and had back-to-back second-place finishes there before finishing 13th last season. He's the man to beat right now.

Kyle Busch – Busch won the opening stage of Sunday's race in Phoenix after stalking Larson early. He had the fastest car throughout the afternoon and spent most of the time comfortably in front of the pack. A late-race duel between Harvick and him set up the race to the finish, as both drivers worked to get out front to be in position to pounce in the final laps, but a slow final pit stop may have been the difference between winning and finishing as runner up. The car had a slow left-side tire change, and Harvick was able to use that little bit of extra time to his advantage to steal the win. Busch has three career wins at Auto Club Speedway and finished eighth there last season.

Chase Elliott – Elliott had impressive rookie-season runs at Phoenix last season and he backed those up with another last week. After struggling to find the groove with their new Chevrolet in the first three races, things finally seemed to click on the desert oval. Elliott not only was in contention, but also spent time leading laps and fighting toe-to-toe with the race's top cars. That remarkable turnaround put Elliott solidly inside the top-five runners in the final laps, and earned him a third-place finish amongst the best in 2018 thus far. Elliott has finished in the top 10 in both of his Auto Club Speedway visits in the Cup series, and after his Phoenix run, fantasy owners should expect another this time.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin entered the weekend at Phoenix with the potential to deliver a top performance. A small mistake with his positioning in his pit box caused a slow stop that dropped him to 19th at the start of the race's final segment, though. He was able to recover in the final stage and spent a number of laps holding off Harvick and teammate Kyle Busch before finally succumbing to the onslaught. Hamlin has never won in Fontana, but he has started inside the top 10 and led laps in each of the last six races at the track. The team seems to be on the verge of a breakthrough. Perhaps that will come this week in California.

Kurt Busch – Busch's car was quick throughout the opening stages of Sunday's race in Phoenix, but track position was the enemy. He was able to remedy that situation under a late caution to win the second stage, but that only left him deep in the field for the final segment. He battled hard throughout the final stage and was able to work his way back into the 10th-place finishing position, but he must be left wondering if a little luck on his side could have given him more. Busch won at Auto Club Speedway in 2003 and has started from pole at the track four times. He hasn't finished in the top 10 there in the last two seasons, but his prowess so far this season implies he'll be better this week.

DOWNGRADE

Kyle Larson – Larson jumped out to lead most of the early laps on Sunday, but he faded deeper into the top 10 as the first stage concluded and spun to bring out a caution during the second stage. The car never was back in contention after that issue, and a promising opportunity to maintain leadership among the Chevrolet teams fell by the wayside. There will be ups and downs throughout the year, and Larson still maintains a good deal of optimism, but the team must fully get back on track this week. Larson has been excellent at Auto Club Speedway in his four career starts, which could help. He won at the track last season and finished second in his first start at the track in 2014.

Brad Keselowski– Keselowski used a two-tire stop after Larson's spin to jump into the lead in the second stage of Sunday's race and did it again to race Kurt Busch for the win of the second stage. He used the Xfinity series race on Saturday to improve his Cup effort at the track and applied what he learned on Sunday. Unfortunately, the strategy didn't pan out, and a late pit stop put him behind the leaders after needing just a bit of luck for things to turn out brightly. Keselowski won at Auto Club Speedway in 2015 and hasn't finished outside of the top 10 there since. It was a challenging day after having an early-season advantage, but Fontana offers another opportunity.

Chris Buescher – A right-front tire failure sent Buescher's day from bad to worse. He already was running multiple laps down to the leaders in the second stage on Sunday before that failure virtually ended any chance he may have had of working his way back into having a respectable afternoon. It was not the type of afternoon fantasy owners have come to expect from this team, but it could signal a larger issue of which fantasy owners may want to be wary. While Buescher took a step forward in results since moving to JTG Daugherty Racing last season, the start to the 2018 schedule has been rougher than expected. Buescher has yet to score a top-10 finish at Auto Club Speedway and only has a best finish of 20th from 2015.

Paul Menard – Menard certainly had gotten off to a strong start with Wood Brothers Racing, but Sunday in Phoenix was not a good outing. The team was relatively on pace throughout the weekend, but an issue sent Menard into the outside wall and out of the race early in the final segment. The DNF was not a good outcome for the team that has been fighting for top-10s so far this year and is looking to hold station inside the playoff standings as the season wears on. This week's race in Fontana could be a test for the No. 21 organization. The team is on the opposite side of the country after a disappointing race and will need to regroup to regain their composure and get back into top-10 contention.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

William Byron – Byron stepped into big shoes as a rookie taking over the wheel of the No. 24 machine. He expected a rough rookie season but anticipated improving as the season moved on. Fortunately, that seems to be the case. He led his first laps in the series in Phoenix and used strategy to get himself into that position. He traditionally comes on strongly later in the season, and fantasy owners should expect that to be true this season as well. Hendrick Motorsports was able to get on top of their tricky new chassis last week, and that should give them a springboard to greater success in the near term. That is good, since we all want to see what Byron is truly capable of.

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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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