The drama got underway quicklyin Phoenix.
Martin Truex Jr. failed inspection three times, which means he lost his car chief for the race. Meanwhile, Kevin Harvick’s crew chief is sitting back at the shop with a chip on his shoulder, watching the sessions ... and spending an inordinate amount of time on Twitter.
For the moment, everyone has forgotten about Joey Logano and how he made enemies with Truex and Aric Almirola by racing too hard. Logano did not like being ignored, so he went on record saying he is the favorite to win the championship next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That got their attention.
Harvick did not have the fastest car all day Friday, which actually makes his pole winning run all the more impressive. He was third fastest in Round 1, slipped to eighth fastest in Round 2, and just seemed to want it more than the competition in Round 3. With a lap of 139.340, he edged Chase Elliott’s 139.152 by .035 seconds. The only other time Harvick won the pole at Phoenix was in 2015; he won that spring race.
Elliott has been touted as one of Harvick’s biggest threats this week and his qualification effort that landed him on the outside of the front row would seem to validate that. Elliott is not typically upbeat in interviews, so any positivity must be taken as a good sign for his handicap. Elliott is cautiously optimistic that he will have a good race on Sunday and that is about the best one can expect when everyone has all but engraved Harvick’s name on the Can Am 500k trophy.
Four playoff contenders failed to make the final round of qualification. Truex qualified 13th, Kurt Busch qualified 14th, Clint Bowyer qualified 16th, and Almirola is scheduled to start 18th. Truex is the only one of those drivers who can afford to take it easy in the first stage because of his points advantage over the cutline, but like Harvick he has a point to prove now that his car chief has been ejected from the track.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had one of the most impressive runs in qualification. He posted a lap of 139.007 mph and lines up on the inside of the second row. The bad news is that he will probably not stay in that position and will lose place-differential points as a result. In final practice, The No. 17 had a fire under the hood and we do not yet know how that will impact the car.
The last time Harvick’s team was caught coloring outside the lines badly enough for NASCAR to strip his win of all its benefits, he came to Phoenix and won this spring. In prelims for the Can Am 500 he seems to be on a mission to humiliate the field. After winning the pole for Sunday’s race, he backed that up with the fastest lap in both Saturday sessions and the quickest 10-lap average in Happy Hour. The only person who can beat Harvick on Sunday is going to be Harvick himself – but we’ve seen that happen on a number of occasions this year.
Kyle Larson was the only driver who could hang with Harvick. He posted the quickest 10-lap average in the morning session to go along with his second-fastest single lap. This is not a track that typically rewards Larson. He likes to run the high groove and on a short, flat track, that simply doesn’t exist. Larson has a couple of strong runs at Phoenix, however, including a near-win in spring 2017 before he was body slammed out of the lead by Ryan Newman on the final corner of the last lap.
Paul Menard had the biggest incident in practice. With one minute remaining in Happy Hour, he reported that a left rear tire went down that sent him hard into the wall. Menard will be forced to roll out a backup car and drop to the back of the pack after starting 11th.