In a race that began with an air of inevitability as thick as the storm clouds that pelted Phoenix International Raceway on Saturday night, Kevin Harvick survived a succession of late restarts to win Sunday's The Profit on CNBC 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
In his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing and his first with crew chief Rodney Childers, Harvick entered the race as an overwhelming favorite and delivered, despite the best efforts of Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who chased Harvick’s No. 4 Chevrolet to the checkered flag.
Having shown his speed by pacing both Saturday practice sessions, before the rain came, Harvick led 224 of the 312 laps at the one-mile track, including the final 24, leaving Earnhardt to battle with front row starters Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, who finished third and fourth, respectively, for Team Penske.
The victory was a record fifth for Harvick at Phoenix; he also won the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the one-mile track in November. The 38-year-old driver from Bakersfield, Calif., won for the 24th time in 468 career starts.
"Man, this just solidifies so many things and so many decisions," said Harvick, who left Richard Childress Racing after 13 seasons to make the move to Stewart-Haas. "It’s been so much work with all the time and effort that these guys (the crew) have put in--but what a race car."
In Harvick’s view, the victory vindicated his decision to change teams.
"Rodney Childers has just done a phenomenal job of putting this team together," Harvick said. "These guys all want to win. That’s why they came here. That’s why I came here, too.
"I’ve just got to thank (owners) Gene (Haas) and Tony (Stewart), and (Stewart’s business manager) Eddie Jarvis. In 2012 I told (Jarvis) it would be fun to have Tony and I on the same team, and here we are in Victory Lane."
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson finished fifth and sixth, with Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Jamie McMurray completing the top 10.
Even though Earnhardt had his best speed of the day on his last set of tires, Harvick was able to keep him at bay through four cautions and subsequent restarts in the last 65 laps of the race.
Earnhardt worked his way clear of the Penske cars after the final restart on Lap 304 but ran out of time in his pursuit of the race winner, who arrived at the finish line .489 seconds ahead of the No. 88 Chevrolet.
"We got running side-by-side there for second and just let Kevin get out there a little too far," Earnhardt said of the final restart. "I thought we were running him down those last few laps, but we were just too far away.
"It was a great job by Kevin and his whole team. They did a great job all weekend. They were fast. We worked on our car. We got a little help from our teammates, and it was a lot of hard work to get better and better. I ended up where I thought we should have finished.
"We were a little faster at the end, but they were stellar—impressive as heck all weekend. I hope everybody enjoyed the race. We were really working our butts off there and giving it everything we had."