Takeaways from Phoenix: Don't question Harvick's ability to find motivation

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick (4) celebrates after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race on Sunday, March 11, 2018, in Avondale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Welcome to the 2018 season and welcome back to our post-race takeaways column. Per usual, we’ll have some random thoughts to espouse after Cup Series races and this column will be the landing spot for them. Can you believe the season has already started?!

• Elite competitors can find motivation from some of the most mundane sources.

The discussion that swirled around Kevin Harvick’s race-winning car at Las Vegas was far from mundane. It was clear that Harvick’s rear windshield was illegal given the penalty that NASCAR assessed on Wednesday for it along with a rocker arm attachment infraction.

Harvick admitted Friday that the team screwed up when it came to the rocker arm violation. He said then that he was confused about the windshield penalty and after emerging from his victorious car on Sunday that confusion was gone. It was clear Harvick was motivated from that penalty and wanted to prove everyone who thought that Vegas win was a product of cheating that they were wrong.

[Harvick wins at Phoenix; full results]

Phoenix was the perfect place to make a statement like that. Harvick has been insanely dominant at the track. Sunday’s win was his ninth and his sixth in the last 10 races. He didn’t need any extra motivation to be good at Phoenix. But it didn’t hurt either.

“Any time you can reach out and grab motivation, for me that’s just a piece of the puzzle that I like to be a part of and feel that controversy and that enthusiasm,” Harvick said.

“Succeeding in these types of moments with all that controversy swirling around you, there’s nothing better. Like I say, there’s nothing louder than the action of parking that car in victory lane.”

Harvick can be fantastic in the role of NASCAR wrestling heel, even if he’s matured into the outspoken 42-year-old veteran whose opinion carries a lot of weight. He clearly embraced the villain role heading into Phoenix and worked it perfectly — even if there wasn’t a large or loud contingent of people who thought the rear window issue was blatant cheating rather than ingenuity if it was done on purpose.

“It felt more important to win this week than it did to win a race at Homestead for a championship. It felt like that,” Harvick said. “Everybody felt it. You didn’t really have to say anything.”

“Those are the moments that you just love to live in and be a part of and succeed in. You can’t even explain them unless you’re a part of them because they’re just so rewarding.”

• Sunday’s race was the first time Stewart-Haas had four cars finish in the top 10. While Harvick was first, Clint Bowyer was sixth, Aric Almirola finished seventh and Kurt Busch was 10th.

 “Yeah, it was an awesome day for us,” Tony Stewart said. “That’s probably what I’m most proud of.”

Not to be outdone, Joe Gibbs Racing had all four cars in the top 10 too. Kyle Busch was second, Denny Hamlin was fourth while Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones finished eighth and ninth.

• The racing among Busch, Hamlin and Harvick for the race lead in the final stage on Sunday was fantastic. Each of the three drivers searched for speed while trying to get around each other using various lines in the corners of the one-mile track. It was the best 20+-lap stretch of racing at Phoenix in who knows how long.

Busch ended up taking the lead after everything sorted itself out before the final pit stops of the race.

“We had Kyle back behind us, and we just didn’t need Kyle back in front of us,” Harvick said. “I let the gap close up. I was a little bit too patient.

“I needed to create a gap, and I never had a gap that I felt comfortable sliding up in front of Denny. He did a good job of keeping his car outside of me in the first third of the corner. I was never able to kind of shoot up there and get where I needed to be at the end of the first third towards the center of the corner.”

• No matter what happened during Sunday’s Cup Series race, it wasn’t going to live up to the standard set by the IndyCar race earlier in the day. The St. Petersburg Grand Prix was fantastic as the drivers in the series struggled to adapt to the new cars and passing was frequent. With the previous iteration of car in the IndyCar Series, passing wasn’t all that frequent on street courses.

Rookie Robert Wickens led for much of the race after starting first and had the top spot on a restart with two laps to go. But he crashed out after Alexander Rossi’s divebomb went awry.

Was it a fair attempt by Rossi? You be the judge.

(via ABC)

Sebastien Bourdais drove through and claimed the win. It’s redemption for Bourdais, a St. Petersburg resident. Bourdais was seriously injured in a qualifying crash for the Indianapolis 500 in May.

• There’s been a lot of optimism at Richard Petty Motorsports following Darrell Wallace Jr.’s second-place finish at the Daytona 500. The results in the races following the 500 haven’t been great. Wallace has fewer points through the first four races than Almirola did with the team a year ago. Wallace finished 28th on Sunday afte two unscheduled pit stops.

• Wallace was a spot behind Ross Chastain in 27th. Chastain was driving for Premium Motorsports, a team that doesn’t have the funding or resources that RPM does. Chastain has made five Cup Series starts, all with Premium, and has finished outside the top 30 just once. He’s giving the backmarker team its best performances and deserves a shot with a team with more funding, whether it’s in the Cup Series or the Xfinity Series.