LAS VEGAS - After winning the Sprint Cup championship in their first season together, Kevin Harvick and his team came up with a new set of goals this year.
Near the top of the list was winning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Harvick, who grew up racing across the West Coast, had never won at Las Vegas and he told crew chief Rodney Childers “It would mean the world to him to come here and win.”
So Stewart-Haas Racing built him a fast race car for their first visit to the track, and the team felt it had a chance to win last year’s race. But a mechanical failure derailed his effort, and the loss stuck with them for the entire year.
"Just dwelling on that for 12 months and thinking about everything that you needed to do better and how much this race would mean to him, we just put a lot of effort into it,” Childers said.
Harvick pulled off the overdue victory Sunday, grabbing his first win of the season.
It came in just the third race of the season, and Harvick has been inching toward victory lane since he began his title defense. He finished second in the season-opening Daytona 500, was second last week at Atlanta and, dating back to last season, has six consecutive top-two finishes. He also has won three of the last six races dating to last season.
Harvick isn’t looking too far ahead, though.
“We just have to keep our heads down and keep doing everything that we’ve been doing,” he said. “This isn’t a bunch of guys that are just going to go out and brag. We’re going to race every week like we have never won a race before. That’s the kind of determination that you need when you are going to do this stuff.”
Harvick now has a win that gives him a near-certain berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, where he’d be guaranteed a shot to defend his title. The Chase format awards slots into the playoff via regular-season wins.
“It feels pretty good. I’m pretty excited about it,” Harvick said. “This whole Chase thing, there is a lot of strategy to get in to it. The best strategy is to go out and win races."
Next up for Harvick? A stop at Phoenix, where he has won four of the last five races. His November win pushed him into the championship race.
Harvick led 142 of the 267 laps, and he beat Martin Truex Jr. to the finish. He did it while battling a vibration that developed after his final pit stop.
“It got to be a handful there at the end,” Harvick said. “For whatever reason, we got really, really loose the last run. Tires started vibrating and we were just kind of hanging on. Glad the race is over for our own good.”
Truex was second and now has three top-eight finishes to open the season. He only had one top-five finish last year, his first with Furniture Row Racing.
Ryan Newman, runner-up to Harvick in the championship finale, finished third and was followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a Chevrolet sweep of the top four spots.
Denny Hamlin was fifth in a Toyota and followed by AJ Allmendinger, a Chase qualifier last year. Brad Keselowski was sixth and followed by Kyle Larson, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano and Jamie McMurray.
The race had several small incidents, including one on lap 194 when Carl Edwards squeezed Kasey Kahne into an outside wall. Kahne then drove down the track and seemed to hit Edwards, sending him into a spin.
Edwards had to take his car to the garage and took the blame for the initial contact. “Completely my fault,” he said.
Jimmie Johnson, winner last week at Atlanta, had a strong car but his day was ruined by two different tire failures.
“The first one, they said the bead blew on it ... that’s kind of a freak deal,” Johnson said. “The second one, it went soft. So there could have been some damage that caused it or some rub or something like that, and it went soft going into Turn 3 and I hit the wall, unfortunately.”
Jeff Gordon had won the pole for the race, but an accident in the closing minutes of Saturday’s final practice session sent him to a backup car. He had to drop to the rear of the field at the start of the race, and although he picked his way through
traffic early, he had to avoid teammate Johnson’s contact with the wall. It sent Gordon’s car into the back of rookie Jeb Burton, and caused enough damage that Gordon had to go to pit road for repairs.
He finished 18th and went over to speak to Burton after the race.