For Kevin Harvick, the guy with the car nobody could top, this amounted to a “don’t screw this up” moment.
Restart after restart over the final 25 laps of Sunday’s The Profit on CNBC 500, Harvick felt Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s speed next to him and Joey Logano’s aggressiveness right behind him. Logano kept tapping Harvick’s back bumper, portending this might get rough.
“Restarts are crazy,” Harvick said after winning his fifth Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway. “You’re very vulnerable, particularly to the (third-place) car. Joey was on my bumper all day. Then my line is full of speedy dry and crumbs through Turn 3.”
So many things could go wrong, but one stood above the rest.
“My thing was to make sure we didn’t get spun out,” Harvick said. “You go into that corner and prepare to get hit. To defend yourself. I just felt like if I could get into that first corner and hit the throttle, I could get away from him.”
He did, every time. That was good for a Harvick victory in just his second race driving for Stewart-Haas Racing. Earnhardt finished second Sunday and Brad Keselowski third. Logano and Jeff Gordon completed the top five.
Harvick’s decision to move over from Richard Childress Racing looked like the right one throughout the weekend when he was consistently fastest during practice, then he led 224 of the 312 laps.
“You do this to win. In this arena it’s about winning a championship,” Harvick said of his decision to switch teams, two years in the making. “I needed that enthusiasm to show up to work.”
Harvick and new crew chief Rodney Childers started everything from scratch from the end of last season. The early indications were impressive enough that the No. 4 team was the talk of the garage all weekend.
“They beat everybody before they came to the track,” said Keselowski, who started from the pole. “A great combination and they were ready for everything. They were really prepared all the way through testing. Clearly dominant.
“They look like (Matt Kenseth) last year – the honeymoon syndrome and taking full effect from it.”
Harvick knew he had the best equipment, though he felt Earnhardt’s wasn’t far behind. Sometimes that creates confidence, but it also can create pressure, particularly among such a new group.
“It’s a lot of pressure to have such a fast car, especially so early into the team,” Harvick said. “It’s our responsibility as driver and crew chief to control everybody’s emotions and expectations.
“Everybody is waiting for you to say something or do something. I’m very excitable in the right situation.”
The first half of this race was uneventful. The only early yellow flag was a scheduled one – a competition caution 35 laps in, allowing crews to inspect tires and make adjustments. That was in reaction to heavy rains Saturday night that presumably washed away much of the rubber laid down over practice, qualifying and the Nationwide race.
Things changed dramatically in terms of cautions later on. The yellow came out for debris twice, and on one of those occasions the restart got wild, with the cars of Justin Allgaier and Travis Kvapil sustaining heavy damage.
A flurry of cautions late had two effects – it reduced the chance the leaders might run out of gas and it created new jeopardy for race leader Harvick on each restart.
Earnhardt, winner of the season-opening Daytona 500, kept chasing to no avail.
“He’s not a rookie.” Earnhardt said. “The guy has been around for a long time. He was going to be very, very, very hard to pass. His car is just so good he had me handled easily.”