Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – The NASCAR Cup Series returns to the East Coast this week after a three-week early season run out West on three different styles of venue from the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, to the two-miler in California, to the one-miler in Phoenix on Sunday that many believe was a good preview of the season championship race set for its Phoenix Raceway debut on Nov. 8.
Team Penske’s Joey Logano answered his Las Vegas victory three weeks ago with a second trophy at Phoenix on Sunday. But perhaps the biggest takeaway was how competitive the event was with nine-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick finishing runner-up and reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch finishing third. The 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski had to pit from the front pack with only seven laps remaining and rallied to a 10th-place finish.
The competitiveness wasn’t only a positive sign for the race, but a telling sign for the season’s championship run. And it’s only March.
The series moves to Atlanta Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (2 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a tightly-ranked championship field and a new leader atop the standings – Harvick by a single point over Logano.
Georgia’s own, Chase Elliott moved to third in the driver standings and he’s 20 points behind Harvick. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman, who won at California’s Auto Club Speedway, is fourth, 26 points back. And another Hendrick teammate, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, Jimmie Johnson is fifth, 33 points back – his best ranking after four races since 2016 – when he was third after four races.
Kyle Busch, who came to Phoenix ranked 19th – the farthest back in the championship he’d been ranked after three races since his rookie year – made big moves in the driver standings thanks to his work in Arizona, where he rallied all the way to 12th – only 53 points behind Harvick.
Keselowski, who is the defending Atlanta race winner, is ranked 10th, 46 points off the standings lead.
Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, who led the points standings the previous two weeks, finished 37th of the 38 cars on Sunday after being collected in an accident only 65 laps into the race. He dropped five spots to sixth in the standings, 41 points behind new leader Kevin Harvick.
Yet for as important and championship-telling as the standings are, these drivers are determined to hoist winner’s trophies and celebrate victory with their hard-working teams. And for past champs Harvick, Busch and Keselowski there is a distinctive vibe of urgency. The top five good feelings are not enough. They want to win.
“Fast car, caught every bad break possible,” Keselowski posted on social media after Sunday’s race. “Rebounded to win a stage and had a shot to win till all the yellows at the end came out at the wrong time for us. Sounds like another Phoenix race weekend for me. Currently checking my bus for rattle snakes because I am snake bit here.”
Harvick also has been so-close/has been best among those without an early victory. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford is the only one in the series with a perfect four-for-four top-10 showing in the opening races. His runner-up effort on Sunday – by a 0.276-second – is Harvick’s best finish of the season, and is his second top five after a fifth-place run in the Daytona 500.
Last year Harvick didn’t score his first win until the 20th race – at New Hampshire. But prior to that he had 11 top-10 finishes. Including New Hampshire, he won three races in a six-week span. He had four victories on the year and finished third in the championship.
Busch, driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is having a completely opposite start from a year ago when he scored a career best runner-up finish in the Daytona 500. He then won two of the three West Coast races (California and Phoenix) and was leading the points heading into the fifth race of the year.
This season, however, Busch has had to immediately play catch-up after a rough 34th-place finish (engine problem) in the Daytona 500. He was 15th at his home track in Las Vegas and has had top-five finishes in the last two races – runner-up at California and third last week at Phoenix to start his trek up the driver standings.
He was grateful for the big turnaround on Sunday.
“The guys did a great job,” Busch said after the race. “We weren’t very good when we unloaded, we made a lot of ground, but still not enough ground as I would have wanted to race with some of the top guys. I felt like we were a fifth or sixth place car probably and we were able to come out with a third.
“Good for us with that effort. We need some points right now. We have to climb the ladder back and get back where we need to be.”
Keselowski, the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford, had a similarly rough start taking a 36th-place finish in the Daytona 500 after being caught in a multi-car crash. He answered with top 10s at Las Vegas (seventh) and California (fifth). Only Elliott (93) led more laps than Keselowski at Phoenix last weekend, who paced the field for 82 laps and won Stage 2.
The Atlanta race undoubtedly presents some potential for Keselowski to make up championship ground. Not only is he the defending winner of this weekend’s race, he’s won twice and had a runner-up finish in the last three races at the 1.5-mile facility. He’s scored top-10 finishes in every race since 2015.
Harvick won his first career NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta in one of the most dramatic outcomes in the sport’s history – earning the victory driving the late Dale Earnhardt’s car only three weeks after the legend died in the season-opening Daytona 500. It took him 27 more races to win again at Atlanta – and he did in 2018 edging Keselowski. Although Harvick doesn’t have a huge win tally at Atlanta, he’s led at least 100 laps in six of the last eight races – a series-best 1,061 laps out front in that time. He finished fourth in this race last season.
Busch also has a pair of Atlanta wins – in 2008 and 2013. He’s had three top 10s and led only 11 laps in the five races since his victory with a best finish in that span of third-place in 2016. He was sixth last year.