Weekend preview: Harvick at right spot for first win?

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — With a career-best eight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories in 2018 and a near-miss at his second Cup title, Kevin Harvick came into the 2019 season feeling understandably confident in himself and his Stewart-Haas Racing team.

But 11 races into the season, Harvick and his No. 4 team are still surprisingly looking for a first trip to victory lane. And while that’s not to say they haven’t been close, the defending champion of the Digital Ally 400 at Kansas Speedway (Saturday night, 7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) would like nothing better than to right the ship.

Last year, Harvick won this race from the pole position — a place he’s started more than anyone else in history at Kansas (four) and from where a track-high six winners of the race have come. He also holds the track qualifying record at 197.773 mph (October, 2014).

Harvick has finished eighth or better in eight of the last 11 Kansas races — including three wins and three runner-up finishes. During that stretch he’s led 668 laps total — most in the field. In 10 of those 11 races, he led double-digit laps.

This season, however, Harvick (and essentially the rest of the field) are playing catch-up to Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske, whose teams have combined to earn 10 of the first 11 trophies. The other typically “hot” driver at Kansas, two-time race winner Martin Truex Jr., has won two of the last three Monster Energy Series races this season in his new No. 19 JGR Toyota, including last week at Dover, Del. He swept the two Kansas races in 2017 en route to winning the series championship.

Last year, Harvick had already won four times before the series arrived at the Kansas 1.5-miler, where he won again. In fact, his SHR team had five wins total through the opening 11 races in 2018 with Kansas’ own Clint Bowyer winning an early season trophy in Martinsville, Va.

That the Penske Fords have won this year — twice with Brad Keselowski and once with Joey Logano — assuages the situation some for the SHR Ford team. But patience is not a practical virtue as the regular season approaches the halfway point. SHR has 25 top-10 and 10 top-five finishes among its four drivers but that conspicuous “0” where it would prefer a higher number.

Harvick is third in the points standings despite being the only driver among the top seven without a victory yet. He trails three-time race winner Kyle Busch by 63 points and is 58 points behind second-place Logano.

“Our cars ran fine at Texas,” Harvick said of the similar 1.5-mile venue the series has already competed on this season. “Obviously, we had some isolated problems. Our cars from the Stewart-Haas standpoint haven’t won a race, but they ran fine at Texas.

“We’ve been in contention. We were plenty good at Bristol (Tenn.) and Richmond, so it’s really just a detail thing at this point to get one of them to victory lane.”

CLOSE BATTLE ATOP THE NASCAR GANDER OUTDOORS TRUCK SERIES STANDINGS

The NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship became even tighter following Johnny Sauter’s record third consecutive win at Dover International Speedway last weekend. He now trails ThorSport Racing teammate Grant Enfinger and current points leader by only four points in the standings.

Enfinger re-took the lead with a fourth-place finish at Dover as previous leader Stewart Friesen finished 12th. Although Friesen was disappointed to fall 11 points back in the title chase, that was the first time he was running at the finish in three career Dover races, so he still comes away feeling encouraged.

Only 23 points separate Enfinger and fifth place Ben Rhodes. Defending series champion Brett Moffitt is 14 points behind Enfinger in fourth place.

Sauter (Dover) and rookie Austin Hill (Daytona) are the only truck regulars to score a victory so far in 2019, but that should change again this week with primarily championship contenders competing at the Kansas 1.5-miler.

Matt Crafton is the only multi-time winner (2013 and ’15) in the field this week. The two-time Gander Trucks champion is keeping the title contenders honest. He’s ranked sitting in the standings — 37 points behind Enfinger — and has top-10 finishes in five of the last six Kansas races, including three top-five showings.

Additionally, he finished either first or second at Kansas for four consecutive years between 2013 and ’16.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

Next Race: Digital Ally 400

Defending race winner: Kevin Harvick

The Place: Kansas Speedway; Kansas City, Kan.

The Date: Saturday, May 11

The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

TV: FS1

Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps); Stage 1 (ends on Lap 80), Stage 2 (ends on Lap 160), race ends on Lap 267

What to watch for: Defending race winner Kevin Harvick (fall 2016, spring 2018) and 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. (swept 2017) have won four of the last five Kansas Speedway races. … Truex is the only driver to sweep a season’s races at the track. … Two of the last three races have been won from the pole position. … Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Harvick are the winningest active drivers at Kansas with three victories each. … Only twice in the last 10 races has the driver who led the most laps gone on to win. (Truex in spring 2017 and Joey Logano in fall 2015). … There are eight former winners in the field this weekend. …. The deepest in the starting field a race winner has come is 25th on the grid, Brad Keselowski in spring 2011. …. Kyle Busch is the only driver with victories in all three marquee series at Kansas Speedway. He has two NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series trophies, four in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and one in Cup. … Only one time in the last 10 races has a manufacturer won consecutive races — Truex’s Toyota sweep. … Parity has been evident at Kansas as Chevrolet has four wins in the last 10 races, Ford has three and Toyota has three. … Chase Elliott is the youngest driver to win at Kansas, winning in the fall of last year at the age of 22 years, 10 months and 23 days. … Mark Martin is the oldest driver to win there at 46 years, nine months in October 2005. … Chevrolet leads all manufacturers with wins (12) and poles (10). …. Hendrick Motorsports is the winningest team at Kansas with seven victories. … Kurt Busch has made the most starts at Kansas (26) without a victory. … Logano leads all active drivers in average starting position (9.6). … Ryan Blaney and the late Jason Leffler are the only drivers to earn their very first Cup series pole position at Kansas. … No Cup driver has scored his career first race victory at Kansas Speedway.

Gander Outdoors Truck Series

Next Race: Digital Ally 250

Defending race winner: Noah Gragson

The Place: Kansas Speedway; Kansas City, Kan.

The Date: Friday, May 10

The Time: 8:30 p.m. ET

TV: FS1

Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 250.5 miles (167 laps); Stage 1 (ends on Lap 40), Stage 2 (ends on Lap 80), race ends on Lap 167

What to watch for: There are only two former race winners in the field this weekend — Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter. …. Crafton is one of only two drivers to win multiple times at Kansas (2013 and ’15). Kyle Busch also won twice (2014 and ’17). … No driver has ever won consecutive races. Last year’s winner Noah Gragson is not entered this weekend. … Kansas has been home to five first-time series winners — Ricky Hendrick won his first and only truck series race in the 2001 inaugural Kansas truck race. Jon Wood (2003), Erik Darnell (2007), James Buescher (2012) and William Byron (2016) also earned their first NASCAR race wins at the track. … Six of the 18 Kansas races have been won from the outside pole position, making the second starting spot the most prolific. Nine of the 18 races have been won from the front row. …. Manufacturers have been very streaky in this race, with Toyota on a six-race winning streak. Prior to that Chevrolet won three straight. Ford has won back-to-back races here twice. … Toyota leads all manufacturers with eight wins at Kanas. Chevrolet has six and Ford has four. … Kyle Busch Motorsports is largely responsible for Toyota’s streak with four of the six wins in the current streak. … Twice a driver has won at Kansas en route to the season championship — Buescher (2012) and Crafton (2013). …There are three women entered in this weekend’s race — Jennifer Jo Cobb, Natalie Decker and Angela Ruch. This will be the track debut for both Decker and Ruch. … ThorSport Racing teammates Grant Enfinger and Sauter are ranked first and second in the standings. Enfinger holds a slim four-point edge on Sauter. And they both boast solid average finishes at Kansas. Enfinger has an average finish of 9.5 with two starts. Sauter has an average finish of 8.8 in 10 starts. They are the only drivers in the field with average finishes in the top 10.