Happy hours: Harvick lives up to his nickname in PIR practice sessions

Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Jimmy John's Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Robert Laberge/Getty Images

All week long, the forecast for Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway was dire: Rain, sometimes torrential, was forecast from early Friday evening to Sunday morning, putting Saturday’s schedule in doubt.

It rained early and it rained hard – the first rain in Avondale, Ariz.,  in 70 days – but then the rains stopped at the track.

Surprisingly, the skies over PIR held long enough for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to get two full practice rounds completed in preparation for tomorrow’s The Profit on CNBC 500 at the one-mile desert track.

When the sessions ended, some very clear trends emerged: Kevin Harvick looked especially racy in his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, and the Penske Racing Fords of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano continued to show speed.

Keselowski and Logano qualified on the front row, but Harvick is the favorite to win on Sunday and by a fair measure: He was fastest in both Saturday practice sessions in single-lap times and in the opening round in both five- and 10-consecutive lap averages. No driver ran 10 consecutive laps in Happy Hour.

The SHR driver loves this track, too: Harvick has four Sprint Cup victories at PIR, including two of the last three. And with NASCAR’s new points format, where winning any regular season race virtually guarantees a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Harvick said he’s willing to take more chances to win.

"You have to keep the mindset right now of that you still have to finish the races," said Harvick. "But as you get in that position you can start being a lot more aggressive with really anything. Car set-ups, fuel strategy, race strategy, all those things fall into being more aggressive so you can take a lot of chances and then really, all you’re after at that point is winning races to try to gain more bonus points to protect yourself in the first round of the Chase to get the cushion."

Pole-winner Keselowski looked strong, too, although he’ll be without crew chief Paul Wolfe, who is back home awaiting the birth of his first child with wife Aleah. Keselowski’s engineer, Brian Wilson, will call the shots on the pit box with an assist from Greg Erwin.  

There were some surprises in practice as well: Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates teammates Jamie McMurray and rookie Kyle Larson looked stout. So did Dale Earnhardt Jr., the Daytona 500 winner, who was fourth in the morning session and sixth in Happy Hour.

McMurray starts third on Sunday and was seventh in Happy Hour, while eighth-qualifier Larson was second in Happy Hour. ‘We rolled off the truck really good and we have a good car in race trim," said Larson. "… I’m definitely excited about being in Phoenix. Hopefully we can come away with a good finish Sunday."

Surprisingly, none of the three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas practiced in the top 10 in either session, with Brian Vickers, the only Toyota driver in the top 10 in either sessions, finishing ninth in Happy Hour.

Keep an eye on last year’s winner, Carl Edwards, on Sunday. Although he qualified only 23rd, Edwards was in the top 10 in both practices.

The good news on Sunday? The forecast calls for 0 percent chance of rain.