NASCAR Barometer: Harvick Advances with Win

NASCAR Barometer: Harvick Advances with Win

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Kevin Harvick dominated the weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, fielding the fastest car throughout the weekend and running away from the competition during the race. His domination in the race was nothing short of amazing as he led 264 of the race's 312 laps. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has now won four of the last five Phoenix races, but one could argue that last week's was the most important. Sunday's win puts him into the championship finale at Homestead Miami Speedway next week, and gives him the most momentum ahead of the championship weekend.

Advancing with Harvick to the finale next week is Denny Hamlin, who started Sunday's race from the pole position. Hamlin has improved his results since the Chase began, and his early-season struggles are firmly behind him as he eyes his first championship. Joey Logano will also contend among the top four drivers, overcoming a myriad of small issues in Phoenix to finish sixth, which was more than enough to advance. Finally, Ryan Newman booked a spot in the finale with a last-lap pass of rookie Kyle Larson that saw the rookie slide into the wall off of the last turn. The past races have been nothing short of entertaining, and the pressure will peak in the next week as a championship is on the line.

UPGRADE

Kevin Harvick - Harvick turned in the weekend everyone was expecting in Phoenix. The No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing driver was one of the fastest cars throughout practice and qualifying, and drove away from the field throughout the distance on Sunday. The No. 4 deservedly booked a spot in the Chase finale next week by being one of the fastest cars all season. Nearly every week Harvick has threatened to win, and next week should be no different, but a championship will be on the line. In Miami Harvick has 11 top-10 finishes from 13 starts, and an impressive average finish of 8.1. That could help him to win his first championship, but he'll have three other drivers to contend with first.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin criticized himself for his lack of performance since the Phoenix oval was repaved, but he overcame those critiques this past weekend. The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing driver started from pole and had confident practices before Sunday's race. He clinched a spot in next week's championship showdown with a top-5 finish on Sunday, too. His results since the Chase began have improved since his midseason slump, and he now stands with a chance of winning his first Sprint Cup championship next week in Miami. His Homestead record is the best among the remaining Chase contenders, and Hamlin could walk away with the Cup in this new format after overcoming struggles that may well have eliminated him from contention in the past.

Joey Logano -
Logano was put behind the competition early Sunday with a mistake on pit road. The driver left the pit box before the gasman was able to remove the fuel can, leaving NASCAR to assess a penalty. From there the No. 22 fought to stay on the lead lap, and a plethora of other troubles that could have derailed his concentration and torpedoed his championship effort. Instead, Logano focused forward and pushed his way ahead to finish sixth, which was more than enough to claim a spot in the championship finale next week. Logano hasn't had much success in Miami, though. No top-5s and just one top-10 finish contribute to his average result of 20.8 at the track.

Ryan Newman -
Newman will be the only driver contending for the 2014 championship in Miami who hasn't scored a victory yet this season. For a season in which NASCAR said "winning is everything," Newman has proved them wrong. Consistency has won the day for the team, and the last corner bump-and-run he put on Kyle Larson may have granted him the season of a lifetime, advancing him into the finale in Miami. Newman has not only failed to win a single race in 2014, but he has yet to win at Homestead as well. His average finish of 17th at the track comes after 12 starts and just one top-5 finish. Newman is certainly the underdog in this championship, yet he remains alive.

DOWNGRADE

Jeff Gordon - Gordon was not as fast as Harvick in Phoenix on Sunday, and that simply wasn't good enough for the veteran to dig himself out of the hole that he was put in from the Texas fireworks two weeks ago. The veteran spent most of Sunday afternoon running in the top five, but his efforts failed to earn him a shot at a fifth championship next weekend in Miami. He finished second in Phoenix, but lost the final transfer position to Newman on the final corner of the race. Gordon is a past Homestead winner, and has 11 top-10 finishes from 15 career starts at the track. He has looked like a championship-winning driver much of 2014, but may have to settle for just a win next week.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson wasn't able to pull off back-to-back wins last week in Phoenix after winning two weeks ago in Texas. The No. 48, who had already been eliminated from championship contention, suffered a failure that put him in the wall with less than 100 laps remaining in Sunday's race. The damage forced him behind the wall for repairs, and the team failed to recover from that problem. Johnson ended the day classified in 38th position in another disappointing result in an up-and-down season for the defending champion. Miami is a track Johnson has never won at, so the question remains whether or not he can win there when the championship pressure is off, but even if he does the championship will not be his.

Kyle Busch -
After dominating Saturday's Nationwide race only to lose the lead in the late laps Busch encountered more trouble on Sunday. The No. 18 spun into the wall on a restart and was collected by Clint Bowyer. The damage to his car was significant, and Busch was battling uphill after that. He returned to the track, but his outing was effectively over by that time. When the race distance was complete his car had no hood or fenders, and he had only worked his way back to the 34th position. Busch has just three top-10 finishes in nine starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and will hope to claim one more top finish before the season ends and winter commences.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer wound up on the wrong side of a restart when he collided with a spinning Kyle Busch in Phoenix. The damage forced Bowyer into the wall, and then straight to the garage to make repairs. The dent to Bowyer's effort was comprehensive, and the No. 15 was only able to claim the 39th finishing position as a result. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver hasn't lived up to his expectations yet this season, but has an average finish of 11.2 from eight starts in Miami. That average could help him finish the season off with a decent finish, though. Bowyer could use a shot in the arm before heading into the winter to come back stronger for a better season next year.

Carl Edwards -
On a day when Edwards needed a top result to move forward to Miami he failed to make any lasting impression on the field. The driver heading to Joe Gibbs Racing next season will not contend for the championship next week, but can take solace in finishing inside the top eight in his final season with the team. Edwards has won twice at Miami, and has only failed to finish outside of the top 10 there twice in his 10 starts at the track. His average finish is 6.6, but that will not be an advantage he carries with championship hopes this season. Instead, he will be look to end his tenure with Roush with one more win before heading to fresh pastures.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Marcos Ambrose - In his final few races in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition before returning to the Australian V8 Supercar series Ambrose rose to the challenge and finished 10th in Phoenix. The track has a tendency to favor road course racers, but Ambrose had only scored one top-10 at the track in his career prior to Sunday. That last top-10 Phoenix finish came in 2011. His 2014 championship effort effectively ended when he missed a close-fought win at Watkins Glen International to A.J. Allmendinger, but Ambrose will return to his native country holding his head high with his NASCAR effort. His Sprint Cup career has been a thrill to watch, and we look forward to seeing him battle door-to-door next year in the Supercars.

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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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