Kevin Harvick's NASCAR Sprint Cup victory is a Las Vegas showstopper

Defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick gets the win Sunday in Las Vegas


A three-race stretch of NASCAR racing in the West that opened here Sunday might need to be billed as the Kevin Harvick Swing.

Harvick, the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion, won the Kobalt 400 in dominating fashion at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, his first Cup victory here.

The Bakersfield native led 142 of the race's 267 laps, and his victory came after he finished second in the season's first two races, at Daytona and Atlanta.

In fact, Harvick has finished first or second in his last six races going back to last fall when he won the Cup championship in his No. 4 Chevrolet prepared by Stewart-Haas Racing.

The last time that happened was 19 years ago; four-time champion Jeff Gordon accomplished the feat in 1996.

Now the series heads to Phoenix International Raceway, where Harvick will again be a favorite next Sunday. He's won four of the last five Cup races there, including both events last year.

The final leg of NASCAR's Western stretch is March 22 at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, where Harvick won in 2011 when he was driving for Richard Childress Racing.

Even if Harvick comes up short the next two weeks, he's likely to be in position to defend his Cup title. His win Sunday all but guarantees him a berth in this year's Chase for the Cup championship playoff in the fall.

"It's just awesome to be a part of this team," said Harvick, 39. "In my professional career, this is by far the most fun I've ever had."

Martin Truex Jr. finished second, followed by Ryan Newman and then Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has finished third, third and fourth to start the season.

This being Las Vegas, it's worth noting that before the race, Jimmie Johnson was the favorite to win with 4-1 odds, according to the gambling site Johnson is the only four-time winner here, and he won last week's race in Atlanta. Harvick was next at 9-2.

Johnson was strong early in the race, leading 45 laps. But he ran into trouble with tire problems that twice sent his No. 48 Chevy into the wall, leaving him with a 41st-place finish.

Gordon, Johnson's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, captured the pole position in what probably was his last appearance at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in his No. 24 Chevrolet.

The track handed out red and white towels that read "I was there!" to spectators, who waved them as Gordon passed by on the 24th lap of the race.

But Gordon was required by NASCAR rules to start at the rear of the 43-car field because he was using a backup car. His primary car was damaged in a practice crash Saturday.

After climbing halfway through the field, Gordon ran into the back of Jeb Burton's Toyota after Burton checked up for one of Johnson's blown tires. That crumpled the front of Gordon's car and he finished 18th.

The accident "ruined our day," Gordon said. "Our car just wouldn't go down the straightaway and it was real tight."

With 74 laps remaining, Carl Edwards' No. 19 Toyota was damaged after he made contact with Kasey Kahne's No. 5 Chevy and spun off the track. The two also had made contact moments earlier on the front stretch.

"That's completely my fault and that's what ruined our day," said Edwards, who finished 42nd. "I was being too aggressive on that restart. I feel bad for Kasey Kahne's team." Kahne finished 17th.

Harvick was asked by reporters how he and his team stayed motivated after winning the title last year.

"I have been absolutely terrified that we would never sit up here [on the winners' podium] again, and I think that's the motivation," Harvick said.

"Today might be the last [win] and that's how we approach it. We're going to approach next week like we've never won a race."

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