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Harvick lives up to the pre-race hype

Jeff Birchfield, jbirchfield@johnsoncitypress.com • Feb 28, 2018 at 8:29 PM

Kevin Harvick was the overwhelming pre-race favorite at Atlanta on Sunday, and the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford lived up to the billing.

The 2014 NASCAR champion led 181 of 325 laps at Atlanta despite overcoming one slow pit stop and being on a different pit strategy than both Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. Despite slowing down at the end, Harvick finished nearly three seconds ahead of defending race champion Brad Keselowski.

Harvick’s car was so dominant that he passed Hamlin, who made one less pit stop, with 25 laps to go. It came one day after Harvick led 141 of 163 laps in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race. While there have been limits to the races that Cup drivers can enter, the race still featured a 1-2 finish with Harvick and Logano.

It remains to be seen how he does on a short track like Bristol, which hosts the Food City 500 on April 15. Judging from the early results and Harvick’s own history on the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile,” where he is a two-time winner, he would appear to come in as an early favorite.

FAST FORDS

Many of the Ford drivers expressed concern at the NASCAR Media Tour back in January they wouldn’t be competitive with the Toyotas, which dominated last season, or the Chevys, with the new Camaros, this season.

Over the first two races, it’s been quite the opposite.

In final year of the Fusion before it’s replaced by the Mustang, the car has been out front often. Ryan Blaney led a race-high 118 laps at the Daytona 500, and overall Ford led 149 of the 200 laps. Race winner Austin Dillon led only the final lap in his Chevrolet and that was after bumping Ford driver Aric Almirola out of the way on the backstretch.

At Atlanta, Harvick led 181 laps, but combined with 52 laps led by his teammate Kurt Busch and 38 by Keselowski, Ford drivers paced the field for 259 of 325 laps. In addition, the top three finishers were Harvick, Keselowski and Clint Bowyer in another Ford Fusion.

Las Vegas is another strong Ford track with nine wins in 20 races. They include 2014 and 2016 wins for Keselowski.

DEFENDING CHAMPION

Defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. is the most recent Las Vegas winner with his win there last March the first of eight during his championship season.

His Toyota led 150 of the race’s 267 laps, winning by a margin of 1.495 seconds over Kyle Larson’s Chevrolet.

Hometown driver Kyle Busch has one Vegas win in 13 starts, while his older brother Kurt is 0 for 16 at the Nevada track.

SLUMPING JOHNSON

Jimmie Johnson leads all drivers with four wins at Las Vegas, with his last coming in 2010.

But the seven-time NASCAR champion has now gone 25 races since his last win for the longest winless streak of his career. That win was the 83rd of his career and tied Johnson with his boyhood hero Cale Yarborough for sixth-place on NASCAR’s all-time win list.

More disturbing for the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet, he hasn’t finished in the top 10 in his last nine races dating back to a seventh-place at Charlotte last season.

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