Melillo’s Mind: Ticket Guardian 500
By Justin Melillo
March 13, 2018
For the third time in a row in the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Kevin Harvick brought home the winner’s check.
Harvick did not dominate as he did in his previous two victories, but he lived up to his nickname, “The Closer,” as he pulled up to the lead late in the race to take home the win at ISM Raceway.
Only a handful of days removed from penalties levied against the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Ford, Harvick pointed to his rear window during his celebration, letting his “haters” know that he wasn’t going to just roll over for the rest of the season.
“We didn’t stomp them, but we won,” Harvick said. “That’s all that really matters. Just proud of this team. Put a fire in our belly.”
Kyle Busch led a race high 128 laps, and led the most laps in a Cup Series race for the 56th time in his career, but finished second to Harvick. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was impressed with the effort of his team throughout the weekend.
“Our guys did a great job,” Busch said. “We didn’t have a second-place car yesterday so Adam (Stevens) and the guys did a phenomenal job overnight of making some adjustments to this thing and getting it where we needed it in order to have a fast race car to keep up with the 4.
Chase Elliott led late in the race on a strategy play, but could not hold off Harvick or Busch, and came home third.
“He (Harvick) was definitely the car to beat, and it felt like there were a lot of laps left,” Elliott said. “I tried my best to hold him off as long as I could, but I felt like him and Kyle (Busch) had just a little bit on us. We’ll go to work and try to get better for California.”
Another great race to start off the 2018 campaign, with about four cars near the end in contention to win the race. Denny Hamlin was there too, and if he would have had a little more speed and a better strategy, we could be talking about a Hamlin win, or Busch or Elliott. Even with one winner the last three weeks, the parity up front, and watching the differing strategies play out, have been really fun to watch.
But it was Harvick AGAIN. The dude is on fire, and even with a huge penalty spawning from last week from the rear window “malfunction,” it didn’t keep that team down. I absolutely loved when he got out of the car and started pointing at his window. Time and time, Harvick has proved that he can perform at the highest level when he’s mad.
Harvick is proving to be even more dominant this early on than last year’s champion, Martin Truex, Jr. was the entire season. Truex, Jr. has never even won back-to-back races before, let alone three-in-a-row.
Hendrick Motorsports showed signs of life this past week, especially with Elliott and his third place finish. Rookie William Byron was impressive on Sunday. Byron started 11th, led 15 laps, and wound up finishing 12th. The entire team finished in the Top-15, with Alex Bowman finishing 13th, and Jimmie Johnson coming home 14th.
Another cool note is that two teams took eight of the top-10 positions on Sunday, those being Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. The two outliers were Elliott in third and Martin Truex Jr. in fifth.
The XFINITY Series also raced in the desert this past weekend, and was dominated by a series regular. Justin Allgaier led the majority of the race, but ultimately lost to Cup regular Brad Keselowski in the closing stages of the race. Keselowski joins Harvick and Kyle Larson as Cup Series regulars who have won three of the four races so far in the XFINITY Series. Tyler Reddick is the sole series regular with a victory this season.
This race marks the end of an era for the old configuration of what used to be Phoenix Int’l Raceway, now ISM Raceway. In the fall, the track will have a new Start-Finish line on the other side of the track, and the turns will be inverse, with Turn 1 becoming Turn 3, Turn 2 becoming Turn 4, and so on. It may not be a different drive, but it may set up tricky restarts and exciting finishes.
Next week, #NASCARGoesWest wraps up at Auto Club Speedway. Larson is the man to beat on the two-mile arena. Can he or anyone else knock off Kevin Harvick from the throne, or can Harvick get his fourth win in a row?
I think, as good as Harvick has been, that the ride needs to come to an end at some point. Larson will be hard to beat, but Kyle Busch is my pick to win the Auto Club 400.
Joshua A. Hill/TRE
DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.