The second race weekend of the 2014 season strengthened some assertions many thought would prove to be true this season. Kevin Harvick showed just how strong he and his No. 4 team can be. His dominant performance last Sunday showed that this team may be tough to beat each and every week. Phoenix also proved that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a driver to watch out for as he has now opened the season up with a first- and second-place finish.
With the Las Vegas race weekend upon us, the Trackside Duo analyzes some of the patterns emerging in the new season. From Harvick and Earnhardt Jr. to Penske Racing’s qualifying prowess, statements are already being made in 2014.
1. Harvick dominates Phoenix, No. 4 emerges as top team early in 2014
Alanis: People are referring to Harvick and the No. 4 team as this year’s Matt Kenseth — making a huge move to a new team and becoming a major championship factor. The new championship format will nearly guarantee Harvick a Chase spot with his win in Phoenix, however it’s fairly early to determine how his season will play out. While I’m certain he’ll be in championship talk when the Chase comes around, a new team will pose new challenges for Harvick; it all depends on how he handles them as the season progresses.
Jason: There is no denying that Harvick and the No. 4 team are stronger than anyone in the garage right now. Being so dominant so early in the season is unheard of. At this point in the season, Harvick seems to be stronger than even Matt Kenseth was in 2013. Harvick plays a huge role in his success, but I give a lot of credit to Rodney Childers. Childers is one of the smartest crew chiefs in NASCAR right now. At Phoenix, he used a “freaky-fast” setup and brilliant strategy to make the No. 4 team a dominant force. Their performance also sent a message, telling other teams to watch out for NASCAR’s newest powerhouse team.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. backs up Daytona 500 win with strong run at Phoenix
Alanis: Before the season began, discussion about the No. 88 team centered around how Steve Letarte’s departure from the pit box at the end of 2014 would affect the team’s performance. So far, the situation seems to be having a positive impact on Earnhardt Jr. and the team. Earnhardt Jr. is known for consistency, but not so much for his ability to seize the win at the end of the race. With a win in his pocket and an almost guaranteed Chase spot because of it, Earnhardt Jr. will have the freedom to take risks at the end of the races in which he might otherwise find himself settling for a consistent finish. Due to that freedom, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the No. 88 team to continue on its current hot streak.
Jason: Over the past few seasons Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been building up his performance. He has nailed consistency in the past and continues to do that this season. Daytona proved he has the winning part down too. His strength this season shouldn’t be a surprise because he has been working on it year after year. He needed a good run at Phoenix to show just how strong the No. 88 team can be. Now that the prowess of this team is known, watch for them to be very successful throughout the season to come.
3. Kurt Busch announces intent to run Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in same day
Alanis: Despite numerous drivers discussing doing so, Busch will only be the fourth person to attempt the 500-600 double. The new championship format will greatly aid Busch in his attempt, so long as the No. 41 car can find victory lane at least once during the regular season. Without the need to race for points and consistency, the effect of any kind of travel or race hiccup that would cause Busch to arrive late or miss the Coca-Cola 600 is mitigated, making Busch’s attempt at the double much more feasible for himself as well as others in the future. So, while only a handful of drivers have attempted the double in the past, the new Sprint Cup points system could cause that number to significantly rise in the coming years.
Jason: The Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend always provides fantastic racing and storylines in the F1 race at Monaco, Indy 500, and the Coca Cola 600. Add in Kurt Busch doing the double and you have a fantastic story to follow that day. The prestige of Indianapolis attracted Busch. A race that big must be be hard to keep all kinds of drivers wishing to compete in it away. Busch will get the opportunity all racers dream of when he’s a part of the Indy 500 field. His efforts in the race will likely depend on how his Sprint Cup season goes up to that point. Look for Busch to give more attention to the 500 if he scores a win prior to month of May in his No. 41 car. Overall, this is a racing fan’s dream story to follow and one everyone will be interested in this coming May.
4. Matt Kenseth returns to track where he earned his first of seven wins last season
Alanis: Kenseth is certainly a factor when NASCAR visits 1.5-mile circuits. Starting from the 29th position, however, the No. 20 team has some ground to make up once the Kobalt Tools 400 takes the green flag. While I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kenseth have a good run in Las Vegas, he will definitely have some work to do in order to do so.
Jason: Las Vegas was the kickoff to the incredible 2013 Kenseth experienced. It wasn’t until Las Vegas weekend that the No. 20 team emerged as serious title contender. He had a somewhat slow start in 2013, and that same thing can be said about this season. Everything started to go right after Las Vegas for Kenseth, so the question of whether that happens again this weekend emerges. Despite his success at the track, I don’t see Kenseth going back to back this year.
5. Penske shows dominance in knockout qualifying format
Alanis: For the second week in a row, the Cup race will be led to the green flag by an all-Penske front row on Sunday afternoon. Last week, Brad Keselowski sat on pole with Joey Logano alongside, and this week the order is simply reversed. Some drivers — Matt Kenseth, for example — haven’t seemed to have much success with the new qualifying format two weeks into it. The Penske drivers, however, have seemed to take a liking to the knockout style. Keselowski and Logano stayed up front and finished the race 3rd and 4th, which bodes well for the drivers in the future so long as their qualifying success continues.
Jason: Strategy seems to be what is most important in NASCAR’s new qualifying format this season. Deciding whether to go out early in the first round, posting a fast time, and hoping it holds up is one way drivers attack the new session. The other popular strategy involves going out as late as possible in the round and posting a fast time right before the clock hits zero. Whichever strategy Penske Racing uses seems to the most successful one. Stealing the front row at two totally different tracks in two straight weeks is unheard of. If other teams want the same qualifying fortune, I’d suggest doing what the Penske duo does, since it certainly works and works well.