Kevin Harvick's early dominance has competition searching for answers

Kevin Harvick led 214 laps Sunday, the second most ever in a Cup race at Las Vegas. AP Photo/Isaac Brekken

LAS VEGAS -- Clip and save: Kevin Harvick thumped the NASCAR Cup Series field. He crushed any hopes of drama, frustrating fans who had little hope for a late-race pass for the lead barring a perfectly timed caution.

If the Toyota teams don't figure out what they have do to regain the downforce lost with NASCAR mandating a common front splitter and the impact of the body-scanning tech station, they won't catch Harvick.

If the Chevrolet teams can't figure out their new Camaro any better, they won't catch Harvick.

Harvick, for the second consecutive week, was in a league of his own Sunday at Las Vegas, thrashing the field, as he led 214 of 267 laps to win the Pennzoil 400. He led 181 of 325 laps last week in winning Atlanta, giving him a combined 395 laps led in the past two races.

He looks as dominant as 2017 Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. did last year, when teams could legally manipulate the splitter and there was more gray area in how bodies were built. (Templates were used rather than NASCAR's new camera-and-projector system that scans the body.)

"There was a lot of things with the splitters last year that some people were doing and people weren't doing," Harvick said Friday.

"The way that NASCAR has sent them out isn't different but the interpretation of the rules is different. ... I thought that our cars were going to be OK, but I don't think anybody really knew exactly where there were going to be until we got on the race track and race."

It was pretty evident how things went Sunday. Kyle Busch can see the difference. He finished nearly three seconds behind Harvick and still finished second. Kyle Larson was third, followed by Truex and Ryan Blaney.

There are few who will argue with the Harvick assessment that the scanning system and the splitters make a difference.

"There were some guys that were really, really aggressive with that stuff and they were really good, and there were guys that weren't so aggressive with it that maybe kind of showed a little bit slower speed," Busch said.

"They were fast the way they were last year, and that's translated into faster than some of the guys that had that taken away this year. Definitely some of the rule changes has leveled some things out."

Truex said his car does race differently than a year ago, a year in which he led the most laps in each of the final five races at 1.5-mile tracks, winning four of those five. In each of those races, Truex led at least 27 percent of the laps. He led a whopping six laps Sunday.

"I don't know if they've picked it up quicker than we have or the rules have benefited their body style more than it did ours," Truex said. "We had to change some things from how we did them last year, and it appears those guys are really quick right now.

"We have to hand it to them -- they did their homework and they're really fast and they're doing a good job. I'm not going to be the one that sits here and says there's an unfair advantage because I haven't figured that out yet."

The 1.5-mile track at which Truex didn't win in the playoffs last year was Texas Motor Speedway, won by Harvick. It was part of a late-season Harvick surge as the team continued to adapt to the Fords after several years as a Chevrolet.

"We're going to go back to work, and we've got some things coming that we've been working on," Truex said. "We just can't get the balance of our car where we need it.

"I've just been struggling with getting it to turn good enough these last two weeks, and when we get that figured out, we'll be right there with them."

Truex's crew chief, Cole Pearn, thinks they can get it figured out. But when?

"The splitter probably hurt us more than most I would say," Pearn said. "We're still just getting caught up, and I don't think we're, by any means, a well-oiled machine.

"Kudos to those guys. They've got it figured out."

The change in dominance is not a huge surprise to Pearn, partly because the sport goes in cycles and partly because the wind tunnel numbers in the offseason showed him that his team had "way less" downforce than with the 2017 parameters.

"There was so much change and so different, you just never really knew where you were going to stack up," Pearn said. "We're not horrible, but we've got some work to do to be at the same level of those guys. ... Maybe their body and package is better suited for these rules than what ours were."

Pearn doesn't know when they will catch Harvick. He felt the team chipped away a little bit on Harvick's edge from Atlanta. He hopes to keep chipping and making small gains.

Until then, fans could be in for a frustrating time. The series heads to Phoenix (now named ISM Raceway) next weekend, and Harvick has won six of the past 11 races there.

Some will blame just basic aerodynamics and the typical aero push for Las Vegas turning into a track-position affair. But the Cup cars seemed so much less racy than in the Xfinity Series a day earlier.

Expect that to potentially continue.

"I just think there's better drivers with more experience in the Cup Series," Larson said. "All of our cars [are] maybe stuck to the track a little bit better.

"But I just think when you have a field full of Cup drivers who have so much experience, they kind of know where they need to be each lap of the race, really, and really good at feedback. So everybody is always getting their cars better throughout the race. That's why sometimes you can see less passing."

And sometimes you see less passing because someone has nailed the setup and found the sweet spot.

"The mile-and-a-half stuff has been on point since we got to Chicago [for the playoffs] last year," Harvick said. "I think, as you have the whole winter to step back, take a deep breath and work on some things, obviously I think as you look at everything that's changed, it's obviously not hurt us as much as it hurt some other people.

"There's still a lot of racing left to go."