Winner: Kevin Harvick takes the checkered flag during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series The Profit On CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on March 2, 2014 in Avondale, Ariz. He will need a similar performance on Sunday in order to advance.
Nick Laham/NASCAR via Getty Images
Kevin Harvick finds himself in an interesting position heading into Phoenix International Raceway for Sunday’s Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500, the third and final race in the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Of the eight drivers still vying for one of the four spots in the one-race Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway next week, Harvick is last in points, 18 markers back of leader Joey Logano.
Statistically, that doesn’t bode well for Harvick’s chances.
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Then you look at his record at the one-mile PIR circuit, which was repaved and reconfigured during the 2011 season.
Harvick, a native of Bakersfield, Calif., has always liked racing at PIR. But since the track received its makeover, he’s been especially good here.
In the six races since the makeover, Harvick has three victories, four top-five finishes, 397 laps led and an average finish of 6.3. All of those numbers are best in the field. They also suggest Harvick is the favorite to win, which he likely will need to do in order to be one of the four to make it to Homestead with a shot at the title.
Nevertheless, Harvick is glad to be back here, a track he has competed at for nearly two decades, beginning back when the track was in the middle of nowhere and the facility was very primitive.
"I have raced there a long time," said Harvick. "I guess the first time would have been ’95. You had (Rick) Carelli and you had Mike Chase and you had (Ron) Hornaday. I know Carelli raced there for a long time, long before there were any of the current grandstands and any of the buildings, and they used to run the open comp cars. My dad would come over and work on the racetrack, and if there was a bad storm you couldn’t get to the track because the bridge was washed out.
"There are a lot of things that a lot of people don’t remember about Phoenix. It’s very special to me," he said. "They used to have the Copper Classic and the 300-lapper at the end of the year for the Southwest Tour cars. It was our Daytona 500. So, to be able to go back and win races there and be successful means a lot to me."
Regardless of the era, or the track configuration, Harvick has taken to the track, as the results show.
"You really have to have an understanding of the track," he said. "Every time we go back, I feel like we learn something different. The track is still racy enough where you can make up time if your car is good, but you need to stay focused on strategy."
Even though the PIR asphalt is relatively new, it’s curing well.
"The track has definitely changed since the repave a couple of years ago," Harvick said. "The weather really helps wear the track. It’s incredibly hot in the summer and can get really cold in the winter, so there are some pretty extreme temperatures that have helped to age the asphalt. It’s been an interesting track to race on under both configurations, but I think it’s even more exciting now, and most of that comes from having the design right."
The key storyline to the race, of course, will be which four drivers advance to the championship round?
And the driver right next to Harvick in points is none other than Brad Keselowski, who Harvick shoved into a fight with Jeff Gordon last Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway. So there well could be more fireworks to come. If there are, Harvick said he’s ready.
"As it gets closer to the end, the intensity ratchets up," Harvick said. "At this point of the year, everybody’s just going for broke trying to win a race, get the best finish they can to end the season on a good note. It’s hard racing. It’s fun."
VIDEO: Harvick primed to qualify for Homestead finale