On the one hand, the difference between Kevin Harvick's Chevrolet and Carl Edwards' Toyota was about eight inches at the end of Sunday's Good Sam 500. It's hard for a finish to be closer than that.
On the other, Harvick has won six of the last eight races at Phoenix International Raceway and has taken the checkered flag eight times in his Sprint Cup career at the desert mile. It's hard for a driver to be more dominant in NASCAR than that.
Harvick framed the finish in emotional terms afterward in his media conference.
"I don't think there's any real love lost between the two of us," Harvick said in reference to Edwards. "You know, I knew that I was going to get hit, and I'm going to hit him in the same type of manner, just for the fact that I don't want to spin him. But you definitely want to rough him up, because that's not the guy I want to lose to, and I know he doesn't want to lose to me."
Both drivers performed brilliantly. They were rough, but not overly so. The bumping, grinding finish was exhilarating to all who watched.
They gave no quarter and asked none.
"I ran into him as hard as I thought I could without wrecking him, and it ended up being a drag race," Edwards said in his brief media conference. "It was kind of fun coming to the line, because I thought, 'Man, I got him,' and then he 'doored' me [hit him in the door] real hard, and then he got a little run, and then I tried to door him and slow him down, but it just didn't work."
It seems as if Harvick at Phoenix is different from Harvick everywhere else. He usually wins at Phoenix. He usually finishes second everywhere else.
OK, not everywhere else. Last year Harvick won three races (including one of Phoenix's two) and finished second 15 times in 36 races.
|First Four Races a Year Ago|
|Track||Winner||Manufacturer||Laps Led||Margin (Seconds)|
|Daytona||Joey Logano||Ford||31||Under caution|
|Las Vegas||Kevin Harvick||Chevrolet||142||1.640|
Is this early victory a harbinger of greater things to come for the 2014 Sprint Cup champion? Not yet.
Harvick won this race a year ago. It occurred a week after a victory at Las Vegas. He didn't win again until October, and when he missed out on a second consecutive championship, the reason was that he finished second and Kyle Busch won.
Busch won the championship by 1.552 seconds at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Harvick won the fourth race of the current season by .01 of a second.
While the rules are different, Harvick, at the top of the Sprint Cup standings, is the same. His perspective on the effect of new rules which remove downforce from the cars and theoretically add importance to the drivers is keen.
"There's just a different thought process," Harvick said. "You take 30 percent of the downforce off the car...things are just going to be different. We haven't been that close to really anything that we've run. Winning this race is going to allow us to start to hone in [sic] on the characteristics...because it's going to be different.
"It's not about how fast you go. It's really about how long you can go fast, and really working with that graph, and trying to get the fall-off in the car to where it needs to be."
By "fall-off," Harvick means conserving tires. At the end, Edwards had fresher tires. Harvick defended the lead. Edwards almost passed him, but didn't quite do it. Even those who were unhappy with the outcome were happy about the quality of its ending.
|Comparison of the First Four Races, 2015-16|
|Track||2015 Lead Changes||2016 Lead Changes||2015 Cautions||2016 Cautions|
Each finish this year has been rousing. The difference between the laps leading up to the increasingly famous final scene hasn't been so dramatic. Four races into the new season and its new rules, a pattern has emerged. The races so far have been generally unified in terms of fewer caution flags and lead changes.
A few frustrations emerged from drivers who mainly praised the new rules unconditionally after each of the first three races. Even the winning crew chief, Rodney Childers, had a suggestion.
"[Goodyear] did a really good job with the tires, but the tires still need to be softer," Childers said. "There's no reason our car should be able to stay out there at the end of the race and win."
No one can question Childers by doubting his objectivity. His driver, Harvick, won the race. At the end, when he didn't pit and his pursuers did, the tires had enough left to save him.
By the aforementioned eight inches.
After finishing sixth, Kurt Busch said, "I was just hoping the cars would drop off further and the cars would slide around some more."
"It was still tough to pass," Joey Logano said after limping home 18th and a lap behind. "It seemed better than what it was in the past, for sure, though. It was fun."
The race, not to mention the season to date, contained an aspect of Sir Isaac Newton's third law of physics: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
A progression of great finishes has been offset by races that seemed lackluster in the bulk of the laps leading up to it.
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All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.