NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Paul Menard (27) and NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Kevin Harvick (4) during the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. (USA TODAY Sports: Andrew Weber)
With the Daytona 500 and all its pageantry now complete, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers and teams can now turn its focus toward the rest of the schedule, which starts with a trip west to Phoenix for Sunday’s The Profit on CNBC 500, Presented by Small Business Fueling America.
Phoenix will feature the first knock-out group qualifying session in NASCAR’s premier series. The new qualifying format was announced during the offseason and offers fans and drivers a more intense, exciting qualifying session.
When the drivers take to the one-mile track, four-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick should be considered one of the favorites. Although he has experienced success in Phoenix, he knows that reaching Victory Lane is a never-ending learning process.
“You really have to have an understanding of the track,” Harvick said. “Every time we go back, I feel like we learn something different.
“The track is still racy enough where you can make up time if your car is good, but you need to stay focused on strategy.”
Harvick, currently in 12th place and 17 points behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the standings, has finished third in the title hunt in three of the past four years. If he’s to make the jump to the championship stage at Homestead in November, he will need a strong performance at Phoenix — one of his best tracks.
A win on Sunday would all but guarantee him a spot in the revamped Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. It also plays to his advantage that all three national series return to Phoenix for the penultimate race of the season.
In 22 NSCS races at the track, Harvick has compiled seven top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in addition to his four wins, which is tied for most at the track with Jimmie Johnson. In last November’s event, he finished first after leading a race-high 70 laps. In 2006, Harvick swept both races at Phoenix, and won again in fall 2012.
Harvick’s driver rating is 101.3 over the last 18 races, second only to Johnson.
Harvick endured a number of changes during the offseason — moving from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing and pairing with crew chief Rodney Childers. Those adjustments, however, don’t concern Harvick; he feels confident about where he and his team are in terms of communication and performance.
“We’re starting the rest of the season this weekend at Phoenix, in a way,” said Harvick, who placed 13th in the Daytona 500. “Rodney has always built fast short-track race cars and I’m really looking forward to building off what we’ve accomplished thus far.”
ONE RACE AT TIME FOR REGAN SMITH
After a win in the season-opening race at Daytona, Regan Smith carries a six-point standings advantage over Trevor Bayne into Saturday’s Blue Jeans Go Green presented by Cotton, The Fabric of Our Lives.
Smith, however, isn’t taking anything for granted.
“We left Daytona with the points lead, but it’s a long season,” Smith said. “Something I’ve learned is to not pay attention to the points. I’m sure I’ll hear about it one way or another, but I’m not going to really look at it until we get to race 20 or 25.”
With the NASCAR Nationwide Series in Phoenix, he is looking to build upon last week’s success and improve upon his fourth-place finish in last fall’s race at the one-mile track, his best showing in six starts.
“Phoenix was a challenge for us last spring,” Smith said. “We came back and did our homework, changed some things and left there with a top five last fall.”
In last year’s spring event, the Cato, N.Y., driver finished a respectable 11th. In his four other NNS Phoenix starts, he has an eighth and three finishes lower than 24th. He has an 82.2 driver rating at the track. His best result in nine NSCS starts was a 20th, coming in the second race of 2012. In two NCWTS starts, he has never finished higher than 30th.
If there is one team with a decided advantage over all others, it has to be Joe Gibbs Racing. JGR’s drivers have won the last three NNS races at Phoenix with Kyle Busch sweeping the events last season and Joey Logano winning in 2012. In the past 12 races, JGR drivers have won six. This weekend, Busch, Elliott Sadler and Matt Kenseth will all be piloting JGR-owned Toyotas.