By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
In a span of 12 races, only four times Kevin Harvick has failed to lead a single lap at ISM Raceway, a track that’s been his playground for over half a decade. Sunday’s Ticket Guardian 500 was one of those four instances after a ninth-place result marked his worst result since March 2013 where he ended up 13th, his last non-top-10 finish.
After a relatively uncharacteristic 10th place run in Stage 1, Harvick’s best stint took place in Stage 2, when he ran inside the top-five throughout the run. Harvick would move up to third, to get eight stage points and once the stage wrapped up, he pitted to make an adjustment after his No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford Mustang ran tight.
The final stage proved to be a struggle for the nine-time Phoenix winner, doing everything to make the car competitive like eventual race winner Kyle Busch and pole sitter Ryan Blaney. The on the Lap 232 restart, Harvick and Jimmie Johnson made contact, which dropped him out of the top-10. A lap later, Ryan Preece crashed to bring out the ninth and final caution, giving Harvick a chance to pit for fresh tires and fuel.
Harvick restarted in 21st and from there, made big gains to score his third straight top-10 and 12-in-a-row at Phoenix. Afterwards, Harvick insisted that traffic, tires and the 750 HP rules package factored into the lack of progression through the field.
“It took us I don’t even know how long to get past cars that were six, seven, eight-tenths slower than us at the end of the race, so just extremely difficult to pass,” said Harvick. “We got shuffled there on the restarts and just decided to come down and get tires and see if we could do something better than being in the middle on two tires, and it took us a long time to get back going.”
Losing a spot in the championship standings, the new third-place points man said that every points count as a direct result of the first four races being hit-or-miss in terms of passing.
“With how important track position is it’s gonna be extremely important. We’ve seen the cars extremely difficult to handle in traffic through the first three races, so better score all the points you can because it’s gonna come down to track position.”
Harvick added that speeds, which saw a drastic pickup from last fall, won’t necessarily make the competition any better. His prime example to explain his case was the NTT IndyCar Series, which ran at ISM Raceway from 2016-18. In those three races, fans have criticized the action being lackluster at best with the first two races having a combined total of six lead changes before their final race in “The Desert” saw 12.
“The worst race that we see at Phoenix is the IndyCar race,” said Harvick. “They’re the fastest cars and they don’t pass each other one bit.”
The 2014 champion followed it up by saying his entire Stewart-Haas Racing team must make improvements on car performance, notably under traffic like Busch and Blaney accomplished that got them the race win and third respectively.
“I don’t know that faster is the answer to more passing, but obviously we can make our car better, but I think Kyle made it through. It sounds like Blaney was leading and saving gas. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but he was able to manage traffic.”
The last leg of the “West Coast Swing” will take place in Southern California for the running of the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, a track Harvick ended up 35th after making contact with Kyle Larson on Lap 38, sending him into a spin on the backstretch, but was able to finish the 200-lap event.
Harvick does however, have a win under his belt at the two-mile speedway, where he held off Johnson to win a thrilling 2011 event.