On the Gas
Kevin Harvick’s victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last Sunday was his second in three races to start off the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. And considering his track-record eight wins at this weekend’s venue, ISM Raceway in Phoenix, Ariz., there’s no reason to believe that Harvick or his Stewart-Haas Racing team is slowing down as they head into Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM).
In addition to his record trophy haul, statistically Harvick leads all drivers with 1,484 laps led and 782 “fastest laps” at the one-mile Phoenix oval. His driver rating of 110.2 is tops as well.
Harvick is hoping to become only the ninth driver in NASCAR history to earn nine wins or more at a track. The only other active driver to have accomplished this is seven-time Monster Energy Series champion Jimmie Johnson, who has nine wins at Martinsville Speedway and 11 wins at Dover International Speedway.
On a grander scale, a win this weekend would give Harvick the rare three-in-a-row, accomplished only 23 times in NASCAR’s modern era (1972-present).
Kyle Busch (Kentucky, New Hampshire and Indianapolis) and Joey Logano (Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega) were the last to pull off this rare and extraordinary feat in 2015.
And Busch – who actually won four of five in that summer streak – went on to win the 2015 championship. Nine of the 23 times a driver has won three straight races in a season, that driver has gone on to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.
With a 12th-place finish at Las Vegas last weekend, the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson is now riding a career-long streak of 26 races without a trophy hoist. His last win came at Dover International Raceway on June 4 – the third of his three wins in 2017. He answered that win (his 83rd) with a third-place finish in the fall at Dover, but that was his only other top-five of the season following the summer victory.
Johnson’s Las Vegas showing is his best of the year, following finishes of 38th and 27th at Daytona and Atlanta, respectively.
The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has not led a lap in 2018 and has posted his worst average start (23.7) and average finish (25.7) in his 17-year career during this three-race span.
HOWEVER, Johnson won Cup championships in the two seasons he previously set statistical slow-start record marks in the first three races – 2007 (average start of 22.3) and 2009 (average finish of 21.3).
And Johnson’s four wins at this week’s ISM Raceway venue are second only to Harvick’s eight-trophy total.
ISM Raceway turned out to be Ryan Newman’s ticket to the 2017 playoffs. The veteran is the defending winner of the TicketGuardian 500 and it’s not an isolated triumph in the desert. This is one of his most successful tracks.
The two-time ISM Raceway winner joins Kevin Harvick and four-time winner Jimmie Johnson as the only active drivers with multiple victories at the one-mile oval. He is also the all-time leading pole winner with four – three he scored consecutively between 2002-04. In addition to his qualifying and trophy-hoisting prowess at the track, Newman is second-best among the field in fastest laps run (148) and quality passes (692) since 2005.
He won in the Richard Childress Racing No. 31 Chevrolet last year after starting from 22nd-place and leading only the last six laps of the 314-lap race.
With seven runner-up finishes in only his third year of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition, Chase Elliott has been oh-so-close to scoring his first victory. And ISM Raceway has been a venue where Elliott has particularly impressed with near-misses like a runner-up finish to Matt Kenseth in November’s race. He has three top-seven showings in four starts and has led 140 laps in the last two races at the track.
Elliott’s driver rating (109.1) is second only to eight-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick (110.2) here and the 22-year-old boasts the series-best average running position (6.248) at ISM Raceway.
With bad luck – two crashes in the first three races of 2018 – the Hendrick Motorsports driver is ranked 21st in the standings entering Sunday’s race – an event that could certainly change the direction of his early season start.
Alex Bowman, of nearby Tucson, Arizona, couldn’t be happier to return “home” this weekend. His showing at Phoenix in 2016 while substituting for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet is a large reason he earned the full-time job in 2018, replacing the now-retired Earnhardt.
In that race two years ago, Bowman won his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series pole position, led 194 of the 324 laps and finished in sixth-place – all still career highs for the 25-year-old driver in his maiden season at the championship Hendrick organization.
ISM Raceway has always been a productive venue for Bowman, who last year started fifth and finished eighth in a NASCAR Xfinity Series race driving for Chip Ganassi Racing. Prior to that, an 18-year-old Bowman led 23 laps and finished runner-up in a 2011 NASCAR K&N Pro Series race on the track.
Both Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rookies, Darrell Wallace Jr. and William Byron, will be making their first series start on the ISM Raceway oval.
Wallace, 24, leads the early Sunoco Rookie of the Year chase and is ranked 15th in points, thanks largely to a dramatic runner-up finish for his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Byron, 20, is still looking for his first top-10 finish driving the famous Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet and is ranked 24th in the Monster Energy Series standings.
Statistically at ISM Raceway, however, Byron holds an edge. In his last start at the track – in the NASCAR Xfinity Series last November – he started second, led 171 laps and won the race, his fourth victory en route to the 2017 Xfinity Series title. He won the pole and finished fourth last March.
Wallace hasn’t led a lap at the track, but does have a career-best sixth-place finish last year in the Xfinity Series, with another top-10 (eighth place) in 2015.
Back-to-Back Busch Wins: The Busch brothers swept the Phoenix trophies in 2005, with younger brother Kyle earning his second ever Monster Energy Series win in the spring race and big brother Kurt taking the inaugural fall race trophy.
Sweet Memories: The late 1992 premier series champion Alan Kulwicki earned his first-ever series victory at ISM Raceway in 1988 and debuted his “Polish Victory Lap” celebration there. He and the late Bobby Hamilton are the only Cup drives to score their first win at the track
Fun Fact: A substantial 48.8% of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races at ISM Raceway have been won from a starting position outside the top-10.
No. 1 looking for #1: Chip Ganassi Racing driver Jamie McMurray has competed in 29 races at Phoenix without scoring a win, the longest such winless streak among Cup drivers.