The Profit on CNBC 500 2014: Winners and Losers from Phoenix
The real NASCAR season begins in Phoenix.
Preseason championship favorite Kevin Harvick made sure the rest of the Sprint Cup field knew that there would be no skipping a beat after his move to Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2014 campaign.
Harvick's Rodney Childers-prepared Chevrolet was the class of the field all weekend long, so it was no surprise when the 38-year-old Californian crossed the finish line first, essentially securing his spot in the 2014 Chase.
It was Harvick's fifth win on the one-mile oval in the Valley of the Sun, setting a new track record.
Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't make it easy on Harvick, though, nearly winning his second straight race.
There were a multitude of other winners and losers in NASCAR this week. Beginning with…
All quotes are either from official team or manufacturer media releases unless otherwise noted.
Winner: Team Penske
The Team Penske dynamic duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano qualified 1-2 for the race and finished 3-4. Not a bad showing for this two-car team, which is making quite a showing in an era when three- and four-car teams are the norm.
After the race, fourth-place finisher Logano admitted that despite his best efforts, he was unable to catch winner Harvick.
“That 4 car was just so fast,” Logano told reporters. “I was joking on the radio that on the back bumper of that car it says ‘freaky fast’ and they weren’t lying when they put that on there. We had a really good car, just not as good as his.”
There may have been another factor in why the Jimmy Johns-sponsored Chevrolet was so fast—Kevin Harvick’s right foot.
Loser: Denny Hamlin
Has the magic worn off?
If you can recall, Denny Hamlin was the driver being interviewed in Victory Lane a little over a week ago.
The hottest team at Speedweeks in Daytona, the No. 11 FedEx Toyota from Joe Gibbs Racing seems to have cooled off. OK, let’s say that their short track program has a few issues. Or maybe it’s because the Phoenix race wasn’t run at night.
You want to give this team the benefit of the doubt with a 19th-place finish here. But this team knows that come next week, there can be no excuses if they plan on being contenders in 2014.
Nothing short of a top-10 finish will keep this team in the mix after Vegas.
Winner: Kyle Larson
This Chip Ganassi Racing driver was best in class...the Sprint Cup rookie class, that is.
To be fair, you could say Kyle Larson did have a slight advantage as he cut his teeth racing sprint cars on one-mile and shorter bull rings like Phoenix International Raceway.
Larson was quick in practice and was the highest qualified rookie (eighth).
While some had considered the 21-year-old "not ready for prime time," he’s making every effort to prove them wrong. His 20th place finish at Phoenix was four positions better than wunderkind Austin Dillon (24th) and seven better than Cole Whitt (27th).
The rest of the rookie contingent...well, let's say their performance on Sunday was forgettable.
Loser: Tony Stewart
Smoke isn’t having a very good season—as a driver.
As a team owner, Tony Stewart was all smiles while shaking the hand of race winner Harvick in Victory Lane. But even the heady excitement of his teammate winning can’t change a 16th-place finish.
It’s hard to believe that Phoenix is one of Smoke’s better race tracks, a track where he’s run thousands of laps in everything from a midget to an IndyCar. From his performance on Sunday, there’s still quite a bit of work for this team to do.
Stewart sits 20th in points, which isn’t bad after the second race of the season.
This is another team that has to come into Las Vegas swinging for the fences.
Winner: NASCAR Twitter Followers
The news that NASCAR’s most popular driver (for 11 years in a row) had finally joined Twitter spread like a virus through the online world.
Although his handlers reserved the Twitter handle @DaleJr back in 2008, it wasn’t until after his Daytona 500 win that Junior felt it was something he wanted to do.
Earnhardt Jr. accumulated more than half-a-million followers in just over a week and has somehow found time to tweet nearly 200 times during his media tour following the Daytona 500.
Just think, Junior Nation: You might actually have a chance to swap tweets with the son of NASCAR's Elvis.
Loser: International Speedway Corporation
Earlier in the race weekend, race winner Harvick had harsh words for International Speedway Corporation, the owners of both Phoenix International Raceway and Daytona International Speedway, the site of last weekend's Daytona 500.
During one of the pre-race press sessions, reporters asked the Stewart-Haas Racing driver, known for speaking his mind, whether he was still sore after being involved in a late-race wreck at the Daytona 500.
He did not mince his words.
"The tracks, for the most part, don’t listen to really anything unless it’s profitable for their shareholders, Harvick told reporters in a press availability. "So, when you see somebody spending $400 million dollars on their track and they don’t have soft walls around the inside, maybe they could spend $403 million to go ahead and finish the inside of the superspeedway there at Daytona. Yeah, I was sore all week. And, just today feel good enough to do what I need to do."
Harvick’s Chevrolet hit the inside retaining wall in a place where there was no SAFER barrier installed.
Winner: NASCAR's New Group Qualifying
Pole winner Brad Keselowski had a very fast car during qualifying and expressed pride that his name would go down in history as the first driver to win the pole in the new qualifying format.
Keselowski told reporters after qualifying that he found the format to his liking.
"I think qualifying has been one of those formats that I have struggled with. It just didn’t suit my style in the past. This qualifying format really does suit my style a lot better. It gives me a chance to learn and apply…which to me was instrumental to our success today and hopefully will be in how we go forward.
"It is interesting how a small format change like this can favor or disfavor teams and individuals and this is one that we have been able to take like a fish to water."
Several teams reported having an issue with their engines overheating. NASCAR competition executives responded by saying they will monitor teams during qualifying over the next several races and if there appears to be an issue with adjusting to the new format, they will fine-tune the rules accordingly.
Loser: Danica Patrick
Come on, this one is too easy.
The 2014 racing season isn't off to a good start for Ms. Patrick. Two races in the books, two wrecks. It seems as though photographs of the GoDaddy Chevrolet pointed in the wrong direction on the race track are becoming a bit too easy to find.
A 36th-place finish isn't exactly what team owner Tony Stewart might have expected, given Patrick was racing in front of her hometown crowd and my goodness...all that hype.
Nevertheless, the process of educating Ms. Patrick continues.
There's always next week.
Winner: NASCAR and Richard Petty
It's been amazing how much mileage NASCAR and 75-year-old Richard "The King" Petty continue to get out of the sideshow that resulted from the comments made by the seven-time Cup champion regarding Danica Patrick's racing talent.
By now, everyone has heard The King's unflattering assessment of Ms. Patrick's driving skills, so there's no need to repeat the silliness.
Petty has appeared on just about every television show except Food Network's Iron Chef, but I've heard rumors that Bobby Flay wants The King to cook with him on an upcoming episode.
This sad circus has just about worn out its welcome. When mainstream sports radio-show hosts (who know absolutely nothing about NASCAR except what they read in Sports Illustrated) devote an entire hour to debating the topic, you know its time to move on.
So, despite all the attention it's brought to NASCAR, let's give this one a rest.
Loser: Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage
During last week's post-Daytona media tour for race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bruton Smith protege and perhaps the last great race track promoter (now that Humpy Wheeler is out off the business) Eddie Gossage decided to steal the spotlight.
When asked about this year's fall Cup race date conflict with the Formula One race at nearby Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Gossage called Formula One's failure to change the date "foolish." And he declared it a "shot fired by Formula One at NASCAR."
Of course, this is all nonsense. Formula One could care less about Texas Motor Speedway, a conflicting date with NASCAR and the like.
No, this is just Eddie being Eddie, promoting his fall Cup race, which had difficulty selling tickets last year.
It is unfortunate, however, that Gossage felt he needed to use the coattails of the sport's most popular driver, during his victory lap across America, to promote a race.
Instead, he could have used a campaign featuring partially-clothed women or maybe one that uses guns as a sponsor to promote his race. Wait...he's done that already.
We'll just have to wait and see what he cooks up. It's bound to take our collective breath away.
Winner: NASCAR Fans
A loud chorus of NASCAR fans are singing the “there are too many Cup drivers racing in the Nationwide Series races” refrain.
Unfortunately, they’re wrong.
Having Cup drivers is a financial necessity for several Nationwide teams that would not be able to find sponsorship without a Cup driver in the seat.
Of course, it doesn’t help that every time Kyle Busch gets behind the wheel of a Nationwide series car, he beats down the rest of the field—even when it includes other Cup drivers.
Several years ago, NASCAR changed the rules so that a driver could only race for a championship in one series. That rule intended to limit the number of Cup drivers participating in the Nationwide Series. Apparently, all it did was shoo Carl Edwards away and it allowed Kyle Busch to declare open season on the rest of the Nationwide Series regulars.
There are a lot of good reasons to keep the Cup drivers in the minor-league series, besides finances. Many Nationwide drivers, especially the rookies, will tell you that they go to school every time they race against the Cup drivers. And especially when the Cup drivers pass them—putting them a lap down for the fourth or fifth time.
There is no easy solution. However, NASCAR is working towards a solution. But the financial incentives for keeping Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series is too strong to make any major changes to the current formula.
Follow me on Twitter: @BobMargolis
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