See also: full race results and Sprint Cup Championship standings and a post-race interview with the winner Kevin Harvick

After dominating both of Saturday's practice sessions at Phoenix International Raceway, Kevin Harvick was odds-on favourite to score a back-to-back win at the one-mile short track on Sunday in The Profit on CNBC 500, the second round of the 2014 Sprint Cup Series championship. That's despite faltering in the new elimination-style qualifying format on Friday which left him outside the top 12 on the grid - a small setback for someone of Harvick's proven calibre here, surely?

It was Brad Keselowski who had aced qualifying and who duly started from pole position albeit lacking his regular crew chief Paul Wolfe who was absent from the day's race having flown home for the birth of his son; but it was Keselowski's Penske team mate Joey Logano who immediately moved in front to lead the first lap. The duo continued to lead all the way through to the scheduled competition caution on lap 35 (arranged because of the downpour that had curtailed the Nationwide race on Saturday afternoon) but it was the rise and rise of Phoenix specialist Harvick that captured everyone's attention as he moved up from 13th on the grid to third place by the time the yellow materialised.

After the pit stops it was just a matter of time before Harvick took command of the race, and it was finally achieved on lap 74 with Daytona winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. also soon moving moving his way past the Penske pair to take up second chair. Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports team mates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were also looking strong, lurking just behind Logano and Keselowski in fifth and sixth place, and the ordering that wasn't affected by the first round of green flag pit stops that took place around lap 110.

The order was still essentially intact at the midway point of the 312-lap race as the leaders scythed their way through backmarkers and put more and more big names a lap down. However, shortly thereafter the first true caution of the day materialised for debris on the front straightaway on lap 161 which gave Brian Vickers the free pass - only for him to promptly suffer a cut tyre and crash into the wall under the yellow.

The race finally went green again on lap 171, but a new caution materialised instantly when Justin Allgaier spun in turn 1 and took Danica Patrick and Travis Kvapil with him. Patrick was raging over the team radio, and her humour wasn't improved when she promptly spun again on lap 186 shortly after the restart after suffering a cut left rear tyre to bring out the yellow for the fourth time. All but one of the top ten stayed off pit road - the exception being Kyle Busch whose crew chief Dave Rogers was looking for a long term advantage that might being the #18 parity with Harvick and company at the front.

Harvick continued to lead from Earnhardt at the restart, but there was bad news for Harvick's Stewart-Haas Racing team mate Kurt Busch who after running in the top ten all afternoon was now off the pace after his Chevrolet engine dropped a cylinder, meaning that Harvick soon put the #41 a lap down just before the next round of pit stops began under green on lap 231, which had completed by the time a debris caution materialised on lap 247.

That left under 60 laps to go to the finish when the race resumed with Harvick and Earnhardt still in front of the Penske duo, but a mix of pit strategies meant that Johnson and Gordon had slipped back and pushed down by Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray and Denny Hamlin; however, Johnson - having pitted under the most recent caution - was soon powering his way back up the order again on fresh tyres.

Earnhardt was doing his best to hunt down Harvick and take the lead, but the #88 knew it had a potentially critical shortfall in fuel that even another debris caution on lap 278 wasn't going to be enough to overcome. Harvick had a few laps' more fuel than Earnhardt and used them to good effect to drive away at the restart, but that was nullified by a new caution on lap 286 caused by David Gilliland spinning out in turn 2, the clean-up from the crash extending the period under yellow and helping Earnhardt and others who were marginal on fuel.

The next restart on lap 292 wasn't as good from Harvick but the #4 got a push from Harvick that enabled him to maintain the lead and there was some banging around with minor contact between Logano and Earnhardt in the process. The prevailing running order quickly reasserted itself, just in time for the next caution on lap 298 for Kurt Busch's engine situation finally going terminal in a major way, leaving a nine-lap shootout at the green flag with Harvik restarting ahead of Earnhardt, Logano, Keselowski, Johnson, Newman, Gordon and Kyle Busch.

Harvick easily maintained the lead as Earnhardt had his hands full fighting off Keselowski for second spot, while Gordon proved the biggest gainer with a bold move into fifth place. After that, with no further cautions and no one now with any significant fuel concerns, the running order was locked in all the way to the finish line and Harvick duly anointed with the victory that will likely lock him into the 2014 Chase under the new rules introduced this season.

Harvick had led for a total of 224 laps on his way to his 24th victory in 468 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races. Five of those came at PIR, including the previous race held at the venue last autumn - the back-to-back victories proving that his change of teams over the winter from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing hadn't put him off his stride one little bit, at least not when it came to Phoenix.

"This just solidifies so many things and so many decisions. I've just got to thank all these guys at Stewart-Haas Racing," Harvick said afterwards. "It's been so much work with all the time and effort that these guys have put in, but what a race car.

"To add an extra team, bring in a bunch of new guys, new driver, [crew chief] Rodney Childers has just done a phenomenal job of putting this team together," he added. "These guys all want to win that is why they came here. That is why I came here too."

It's certainly the dream start Harvick wanted. The points boost moves him eight points up in the championship standings - Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued to lead by six points from Brad Keselowski - but it's the satisfaction of the win (and the Chase berth it strongly implies) that really matters and means that from here on in starting with next week's race at Las Vegas, Harvick can relax a little and start having fun. As if he wasn't already on Sunday in victory lane.

See also: full race results and Sprint Cup Championship standings and a post-race interview with the winner Kevin Harvick



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