For the third consecutive week, Kevin Harvick was the man that got to park his car in victory lane. But for the first time in three weeks, he did not lead the most laps.
Phoenix is easily Harvick’s best career track statistically, and he was able to tack on his ninth career win at the track on Sunday. He only led 38 of the 312 laps, but in the end, he led the one that counted most.
Martin Truex Jr. started out on the pole, but didn’t actually lead the first lap. Kyle Larson, who started in second, jumped out to the quick lead and didn’t look back until the first caution of the race.
Corey Lajoie brought out the first caution as his engine blew up right in front of race leader, Kyle Larson. Lajoie had been running in 35th position at the time on the very edge of the lead lap.
As the cars came down pit road under caution, strategy began to play out early. Brad Keselowski took two tires and beat everyone out off of pit road to snag the lead for the restart.
With just 17 laps to go in the first stage, Kyle Busch got his first taste of the lead. Once in front, he never looked back and held a stable lead around 1.2 seconds until the green-white-checkered flag flew for his first stage win of 2018. Along with the stage win, he also collected his first playoff point of the season.
Keselowski’s two-tire pit strategy paid off as he finished seventh in Stage 1, well ahead of where he would have finished if he took four tires.
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick startd the second stage on the front row. Kyle Larson, who came into the pits third at the end of Stage 1, lost four positions and restarted seventh.
For the majority of Stage 2, Kyle Busch was in first, Harvick second and Chase Elliott third. The trio ran consistent lap times that practically mirrored one another, and the gap between the three remained relatively small and unwavering.
This eventually ended, as Larson, who had slipped back to 14th, spun out on his own brining out the caution. He didn’t hit anything or blow any tires, so he was still able to pit on the lead lap and not lose a lap to the leaders.
Once again, under caution, Keselowski took only two tires and came out in the lead for the restart. The top four off pit road was Keselowski with two tires and Kyle Busch, Elliott and Truex Jr. all with four tires. Just two laps removed from the restart, Busch easily got by Keselowski and added more laps led to his total.
Busch continued to lead most of the second stage until Chris Buescher blew a right front tire and collided with the wall to bring out the caution with only four laps left in the stage.
The leaders all came down pit road to get fuel and tires, but a few cars outside the top 10 stayed out for a chance to gain stage points. Those cars included Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kasey Kahne.
Once the restart was underway, it was only a one-lap shootout to end the stage. Kurt Busch was able to win the stage and gain the playoff point. Keselowski followed in second, Stenhouse Jr. third and Kyle Busch fourth.
The final stage kicked off with the two best cars on the front row, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Busch led the most laps on the day, a total of 128 out of 312. Busch got out front and led the field for a bit until Harvick ran him down and took the lead away.
Shortly after Harvick got out front, Paul Menard brought out the caution with 120 laps to go. He blew a tire and hit the wall hard, ending his day early.
During the pit stops under yellow, rookie William Byron gambled to get his car out front. He and Aric Almirola both only took two tires and restarted first and second. Kyle Busch, Harvick and Truex Jr. restarted behind them in third through fifth.
With less than 80 laps to go, the fans were treated to some of the most competitive, side-by-side racing of the year. Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch all ran bumper-to-bumper, battling for the lead for over 10 laps. Harvick tried lap after lap to get underneath Hamlin for the lead, but couldn’t prevail. At the same time, Busch reeled in Harvick and kept trying to gain second from him on the outside, all while Elliott closed in from the fourth position.
After roughly 10 laps, Busch was able to slip past both cars for the lead with only 69 laps to go. Harvick remained second, Elliott moved up to third and Hamlin drifted back to the fourth spot.
The final round of green-flag pit stops began with 57 laps to go when Byron came down pit road. Once the pit stops cycled out, Elliott held the lead with Harvick in second. Elliott put up a tough fight, but wasn’t able to keep Harvick behind him.
Kyle Busch, who had a slow pit stop and slipped back to third, was able to drive past Elliott for second. As the laps wound down, Busch did his best to track down Harvick, but was never able to close the gap to closer than 1.1 seconds.
For the second week in a row, Busch had to settle for second place behind Harvick. Elliott finished third, with Hamlin and Truex Jr. rounding out the top five at Phoenix.
Harvick was able to win three races in a row for the first time in his career. He had won twice in a row five times before, but was never able to achieve the three-peat.
The first of many
Byron was able to stay out front and lead the first 15 laps of his young career. He ran strong all day long and even on two tires was able to lead laps and hang in the top 10 for a while. He also picked up his career-best finish at the end of the day, bringing his 24 car home in 12th.
Next week, NASCAR wraps up its western road trip at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
Featured image from LAT Photographic
“From Our Haus to Yours”