Two. That’s how many spots are left in NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup Final 4. Those two spots will be decided this weekend at Phoenix.
Looking at the Phoenix stats, one same stands above the rest. Kevin Harvick, who has earned the nickname “El Toro” after he posted a video of a bull charging around a bull fighting ring when the Chase began, has pretty much owned the 1.0 mile Phoenix International Raceway in the last few years.
On paper, Harvick’s career stats at the Arizona track could give some a reason to rename the speedway, “Happy Harvick Raceway”, or “Kevin’s Playground.” Because Harvick has won six of the last eight races in the desert. He won four consecutive races that started with the November 2013 race; he then swept the 2014 races and won again in March 2015.
His most recent win at Phoenix came the last time NASCAR visited in March. Harvick also leads all Sprint Cup drivers with 1,484 laps led at Phoenix. Add all those stats to the fact that when Harvick needs nothing short of a win to advance in the Chase, he has done so in the past few seasons; not once, but three times. One of those ended with him winning his first title in 2014.
However, does that mean that the rest of the field needs to simply stay home this weekend? Is Harvick such a shoo-in that everyone else is already looking to race for the second position? Of course not.
Yes, according to past history, Harvick is certainly the favorite heading into Phoenix. But then again, Martin Truex Jr. was a favorite heading into the Chase; Talladega ended that. A blown engine for Truex ended his Chase hopes in a shocking turn of events that was a humbling experience for the Furniture Row Racing driver and his Denver based team.
Harvick certainly has the edge entering Phoenix. But one loose wheel, one pit road penalty, or one mechanical issue could end his Chase hopes, and leave Harvick outside the Chase looking heading to Homestead. For his part though, Harvick is well aware of all that, and to his credit isn’t smug enough to feel that he has an edge at Phoenix.
“I feel like that can be gone at any point,” Harvick said. “That’s the hardest thing about having success. You have to have an open mind to try new things to keep moving forward. If you don’t have an open mind or are not willing to try a fresh approach, then it will get stagnant. You’re going to become stale and get left behind.”
That “fresh approach” for Harvick though does rely somewhat on his history there.
“As we go to Phoenix, we have to look at the things that we’ve done well,” Harvick said. “Obviously, we’ve done a lot of good things. We look at the race tape and pay attention to the lines and braking, steering, throttle and all the things that you have access to and you try to mimic that immediately when you get on the racetrack. “
He’s also cognizant that every race at every track is different.
“The hard part about our sport is the conditions are never the same,” Harvick said. “You never know if it’s going to be 100 degrees or if it’s going to be 50 degrees. That makes a big difference on the balance of the car, how much downforce it makes and how much tape you can run on the front. There are all kinds of things to navigate through once you get there. There are a lot of good racecar drivers and lots of circumstances that could play out to have things go wrong. You go there with a fresh start like you’ve never won there before and try to get the car dialed in.”
Only Joey Logano and Kyle Busch are above the cutoff for the Final 4. Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards have already locked in spots via wins. With his performance in the Round of 8 in the Chase, Harvick is among four drivers who include Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch who need a win.
Sure, based on past success Harvick seems to have a pretty good shot at winning at Phoenix and advancing to the Final 4, but based on this year’s history of not only “El Toro” but other drivers in the Chase, Harvick is far from a lock. Victory Lane at Phoenix is still 334 laps, 501 miles away.
No matter what happens Sunday’s race could be an epic one; with either Harvick moving onto the Final 4 for the fourth time in the last four years, or someone else celebrating a win, while Harvick laments what could have been.