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HOT/NOT: Harvick, Kenseth Prove Team Swaps No Issue for NASCAR’s Top Guns

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Weekend Top 5: Phoenix

Weekend Top 5: Phoenix

Following Kevin Harvick's win on Sunday, I caught myself somewhat amazed.

There was the obvious storyline that Harvick had won a race in his second trip out with his new Stewart-Haas Racing outfit. It followed up what had happened just under one year ago when Matt Kenseth scored a win in his third race ever with Joe Gibbs Racing. How could both be possible in today's NASCAR?

It didn't take long to find the answer. The gist of it? If you're a top driver switching among top teams, the danger of falling flat is pretty limited. Harvick, of course, jumped to SHR from his longtime home of Richard Childress Racing in the offseason.

Today's NASCAR is just wildly different from when driver and teams expected a period of meshing and gelling before the wins could be expected to pile up. We're even long past those days in mid-2000s when the Dale Earnhardt Inc.-version of Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove a repaired Kyle Busch car during a race at Texas Motor Speedway and felt a substantial difference in how the HMS team built the suspension and geometry of the Chevrolet.

The cars, of course, are largely more identical than at any point in the sport's history - credit NASCAR's infatuation with parity for that - and so many teams now work together with alliances or partnerships that you have to wonder if they're sharing credit card rewards points, too.

Harvick didn't need to have real concerns about the switch because he knew at SHR that he was getting in equipment built by the sport's best team (Hendrick Motorsports) that had, in essence, won the sport's last seven championships. All Harvick really had to worry about was getting a crew chief that he could trust and make sure Budweiser looked good with the No. 4.

In fact, the real reservations Harvick may have had about the whole thing wasn't so much about equipment. As with any switch, it opened the gate to again having to prove himself. The garage knows SHR equipment is plenty good. Failing to produce under the team's banner would only invite criticism.

There's no doubt that Harvick's win at Phoenix was notable. But it was notable for the fact that Harvick has now taken a stranglehold on the track with his three wins there since the 2011 repave - not because he had new crew members filling the car with gas and bolting on new tires.

In fact, it may be more important to stick a bit of a milestone at this point in NASCAR history. With the sport so largely operated by the engine shops and chassis houses of so few, is NASCAR heading in a direction competition becoming too sterile? Can the sport grow on driver vs. driver story aspects alone, with team and manufacturer differences falling to the wayside?

It's an interesting debate - and one that I don't quite have an answer for.

HOT: You knew Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s second-place finish on Sunday was a good one. Digging deeper, it gets even better.

Earnhardt's runner-up not only dropkicked concerns that his Daytona 500 win was a stroke of luck for the team, but it also showed remarkable mettle among the Steve Letarte-led ranks. The team was hungry, ready and waiting to battle at Phoenix. And the driver was, too.

Better yet? Earnhardt's run demolished his recent efforts at Phoenix. Earnhardt beat his average Phoenix finish in the last 18 races by nearly 16 spots. His average running position was also 13 spots higher than his average. Those numbers alone could be telling about what the No. 88 may produce this season.

NOT: Kurt Busch failed to finish Sunday when an engine down a cylinder finally let go in the race's closing stages. He wound up 39th. After spinning late at Daytona and finishing 21st, it's been a nasty start to the season for Busch in the No. 41. It's a slump that shouldn't last long, however.

HOT: Kudos in the category of beating expectations also goes to the Penske Racing duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Both scored top-5 finishes (Keselowski was third, Logano fourth) to beat both of their Phoenix averages by a combined 27 spots. Might we be seeing the emergence of Penske as the dominant Ford player?

NOT: On that note, Roush-Fenway Racing appears to have some work to do. Carl Edwards, a winner last year at PIR, finished eighth to lead the team despite an in-race average running position of 11.3. Teammates Greg Biffle (17th) and second-year man Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (18th) were non-factors. We should know more about the team after Las Vegas.

HOT: Give a call to Jeff Gordon's two top-5 finishes to start the season. Also? He laid down a pretty impressive final restart Sunday - advancing two spots with one three-wide move - despite a recent reputation for not being so good in the high-stakes moments. Need proof? He was ranked 12th-best among drivers on restarts at Phoenix before Sunday's race. At the checkered flag, his speeds in the first two laps under green ranked sixth in the field.

NOT: NASCAR's new knockout qualifying format is a golden idea. Forcing viewers at home - who are so often told to interact with the sport on mobile or second-screen devices - to watch it on a modified tape-delay system is a horrible one. NASCAR needs to put a foot down with its television partners to make sure qualifying can be seen live. Otherwise, the impact of the new format will be blunted by frustration of spoilers.

NOT: Both of Danica Patrick's wrecks Sunday were likely not her fault, but the results after two races of 2014 are reading a lot like her results in 2013.

HOT: That 50-plane flyover was pretty great, wasn't it?

On to Las Vegas.

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