Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Two-thirds of the way into NASCAR’s much-anticipated #NASCARGoesWest swing through Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana, Calif. race tracks there are some distinct trends and historic possibilities in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Not only did Kevin Harvick earn his third consecutive win of the season on Sunday at ISM Raceway, but for the first time ever, his Stewart-Haas Racing team celebrated a top-10 sweep for all FOUR of its Fords.
Not to be completely outdone, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team also had four cars in the top-10.
And Hendrick Motorsports boasted its best company-wide afternoon of the season with all four of its Chevrolets among the top-14, led by Chase Elliott’s third-place finish – his second straight top-three showing and fourth top-10 in five Cup starts at the one-mile track.
For many of NASCAR’s highest profile teams the ISM Raceway weekend felt like a win-win.
“Yeah, it was an awesome day for us,” exclaimed SHR team owner Tony Stewart with a grin. “That’s probably what I’m most proud of. It’s the first time in our organization’s history that we had all four cars in the top 10.
“Just proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing. So many people that don’t get a chance to come to the track each weekend because they’re working hard at the shop. I think this weekend really is a big thank you to those guys for everything they’ve done.
“They’ve just done an amazing job. Can’t say enough about these two guys sitting next to me. I mean, when they get on a tear like this, you just kind of stand back and watch and enjoy the ride. It’s fun to watch these guys when they get clicking like this.”
And while Harvick was spraying Stewart with victory champagne, he was genuinely reflective of what it meant to have all of the SHR team’s cars running so well. Clint Bowyer finished sixth, Aric Almirola was seventh and Kurt Busch was 10th also collecting a stage win at ISM Raceway.
“To see our progression as a race team, when everybody ups the ante on the car, you learn something from each car and each person,” Harvick said. “The confidence in the company goes up. The evolution of things start to happen more rapidly. Now that the 10 car is in that evolution, it is good for our company.
“Just really proud of everybody.”
And with good reason. Harvick’s effort in ISM Raceway gives him a rare three-in-a-row trophy haul matching a feat most recently accomplished in 2015 by Sunday’s runner-up Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.
Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is the last to win four consecutive races – doing so in 2007.
Judging by how competitive the racing was Sunday in particular, Harvick will have his work cut out for him in this week’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway (March 18 at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Former Cup champion Kyle Busch – who has been runner-up to Harvick twice in this three-race winning streak – conceded it was definitely frustrating to come so close.
But also highly motivating.
The Gibbs cars finished second (Busch), fourth (Denny Hamlin), eighth (Daniel Suarez) and ninth (Erik Jones). Defending series champion Truex, whose Furniture Row Racing team has a technical alliance with Gibbs, finished fifth and won the pole position at ISM Raceway.
“They’ve just kind of picked up where they left off,” Busch said of Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing. “With some of the rule changes that happened over the off season, we felt like that slowed our stuff down a little bit. Didn’t slow theirs down near as much.
“Playing a little bit of a catch up game to see where we needed improvements to get our stuff going better. It’s pretty good to know we’re a little bit off now, but we’re finishing second each week.”
Hendrick Motorsports was just a bit off the top-10 pace at ISM Raceway, but posted its best overall team finish this season led by Elliott’s third-place.
Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate William Byron led the first Cup Series laps of his career (15 laps) Sunday en route to his best finish on the season (12th). Right behind were the Chevrolets driven by teammates Alex Bowman (13th) and seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson (14th).
“I mean, I think it just showed myself that I can do it, that I can do those restarts up there,” said the 20-year old Byron. “I know I have the pace up there to run until our handling kind of took over, but I felt like if we can really start to hone in on what we need a little better we are going to be right there.
“It’s going to take a little bit of work, but it was fun to at least be up there a little bit.”