The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series is four races down and Kevin Harvick, driver of the Stewart-Haas #4 Ford has scored his third straight win and his ninth career win in Phoenix.
Harvick has been known as the “Cactus King,” being the winningest driver in NASCAR history in the desert. As he faced a handful of penalties from Las Vegas, including losing his car chief Robert Smith along with 7 playoff points and his crew chief Rodney Childers being fined $50,000, his win this weekend counts as a major rebound.
Martin Truex Jr. led the pack to the green flag. With only two laps gone, Kyle Larson made his mark and took the lead but it wasn’t long until the leaders were told Harvick was creeping up through the top ten.
The first caution flew on Lap 24 when Corey LaJoie’s #72 Chevrolet went up into smoke. This caution replaced the competition caution that was scheduled for Lap 35. Truex Jr. beat Larson off pit road whilst two drivers were served with penalties; Kasey Kahne who had too many men over the wall, and Trevor Bayne with an uncontrolled tire. Both were sent to the back of the pack for the restart.
On the restart, Larson once again got the jump on Truex Jr and Harvick and Kyle Busch began to charge to the front of the pack. While Truex’s #78 was busy blocking the #4, Busch wasted no time and sent his #18 straight to third position. Harvick soon regrouped and passed Truex Jr for fourth.
Denny Hamlin sat in the mix as well, running second behind Larson until Busch and Harvick found their way through. It wasn’t long until they both were found in Larson’s rear view mirror. Busch quickly took first position right before the end of Stage 1, with Harvick right behind him.
Pit stops occurred at the end of Stage 1 with Busch, Harvick, and Hamlin exiting 1-2-3. And the race went green again on Lap 84. The top three remained the same until Lap 104 when Chase Elliott passed Hamlin for third.
The next caution came on Lap 121 when a now struggling Larson got loose in Turn 4 and spun. During pitstops, Brad Keselowski made a two-tyre pit stop to take the race lead followed by Busch, Elliott, and Truex Jr. with the green flag flying again with 25 laps left in Stage 2.
Busch, with a tyre advantage, soon took the lead from Keselowski as Harvick climbs to fourth position. Meanwhile Bubba Wallace was suddenly forced to pit under green for a loose tyre. Alex Bowman pitted under green as well, and a penalty for speeding down pit road added to his pain.
With just four laps to go in the stage, Chris Buescher hit the wall in Turn 4 to bring out the caution. Varying pit strategies threw the order into a twist, as the stopping leaders slipped to the middle of the pack. Kurt Busch, who stayed out, won the one lap shoot-out to end Stage 2, followed by Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Those who stayed out to gain stage points in Stage 2 pitted before the final stage putting Harvick and Busch back at the front as Clint Bowyer found himself in the top five. Another caution came out on Lap 190 as Paul Menard crashed hard in Turn 2, destroying the rear of his #21 Ford.
William Byron, Aric Almirola and Kyle Busch led the field off pit road, with rookie Byron in front after taking two tyres. That lead didn’t last long as he was soon three-wide with Hamlin and Harvick, with Hamlin winning the battle. What then followed was a brilliant lead battle between Hamlin, Harvick and Busch, with Busch seizing the lead soon before green flag pit stops. Chase Elliott was the first to pit and this gave him the effective lead as stops cycled through.
Elliott’s advantage didn’t last long as he also didn’t have an answer for Harvick and Busch. Harvick leapfrogged Busch during those final stops and maintained a small lead over the #18 until the flag to win three in a row for the first time in his career. As he finished his celebratory burnout, he stood atop the car and punched his rear window, rejecting any accusations toward another flexible window. “To all of the haters; I see you.”, he said.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to California to compete in the Auto Club 400 next weekend on March 18th.