With Kurt Busch quickly up to speed after missing the first three races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, Stewart-Haas Racing now has two cars running at the front of the field.
Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, Kevin Harvick extended his streak of top-two finishes to eight races, and some of his toughest competition came from his SHR teammate Busch. Highly motivated and focused, Busch put together another strong weekend in just his second start this year. He qualified the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet on pole position and contended strongly for the victory, losing out to race winner Brad Keselowski in the final green-white-checkered sprint.
Harvick and the No. 4 team were stout as usual at Fontana. But Stewart-Haas had to take encouragement from the fact that Busch ran as impressively as anyone in the field -- including Harvick -- for the second week in a row.
"I hate that the 41 wasn't able to hold on for the win there," Harvick said after passing Busch in the run to the finish line after Busch glanced the wall in a desperate last attempt to catch Keselowski. "I would have loved to see those guys get their first win [of 2015]."
A week ago at Phoenix, Busch said it would be stupid not to try out the chassis setups that Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers are using for so much success. The difference is that Busch, unlike SHR's Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick, seems to be able to extract speed from the combination that Harvick and Childers have landed upon.
"It was a solid day," Busch said. "I don't know what we could have done different. We just got pinned in by the yellows and the sequence at the end on which tires we needed to have to optimize how many laps were left.
"We had two tires; Keselowski had four. We didn't need that extra yellow at the end and I just got outmuscled by Keselowski."
Asked about why Stewart and Patrick seem to struggle with the vaunted "setup" he has used since mid-2014, Harvick joked: "I haven't looked at a setup in weeks!
"I know that the 4 [Harvick] and the 14 [Stewart], all those cars are built side-by-side and put together by most of the same people," Harvick added. "I know that all of our notes are live when we are in the garage and everybody shares information.
"But there are different characteristics of driving styles and interpretation of what you think you need and things like that."
Stewart took advantage of the series of late cautions to put himself in position for his best finish of the 2015 season. When the majority of the leaders pitted prior to the first GWC attempt, Stewart stayed out to line up second. He got freight-trained on the ensuing restart and was disappointed to not hang on for a top-10 finish.
Still, 14th place represented progress after failing to crack the top 30 in the first four races of the 2015 campaign.
"We are gaining on it a little chunk at a time," Stewart said. "We didn't need to get it all today, but this is a big gain for us."
But Stewart seemed more concerned after the race with expressing his displeasure to Martin Truex Jr. about a midrace balk, a bump that resulted in an aero-upsetting hole in the nose of Stewart's Chevrolet.
Stewart vented at Truex with a series of F-bombs after the race, but quickly cooled down.
"He [Truex] had a problem with the 43 car [Aric Almirola] and when he got done drafting with him he drove across the racetrack into us," Stewart said. "It's just stupid.
"I don't have a problem with it," he added. "I just didn't want my car tore up. He had a problem with somebody else and I'm the one who paid the price for it. I wasn't delusional that we were going to win the race or anything, but it takes us out of contention to have a top-10 finish."
Patrick also showed signs of turning the corner at Fontana. She was 10th fastest in practice, but was unable to replicate that form in qualifying, when she could manage only 22nd.
In a race in which 32 drivers finished on the lead lap, Patrick ran as high as 11th late in the race, only to have a poor final pit stop drop her to 22nd as her team struggled to change the right front wheel. Danica made up three positions and finished 19th.
"Of all the times to have a mistake, that wasn't ideal," Patrick said. "The guys worked hard all day to help get the Aspen Dental Chevrolet running up front.
"It's frustrating to end up finishing behind guys I ran ahead of all day, but we definitely made gains toward the end and it was good to get up there and run solidly in the top 15."
Xfinity Series: Jones stars
But the star of the NASCAR Xfinity Series weekend may have been Erik Jones, who drove his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to pole position and a third-place finish in the 300-mile event.
It was the 18-year-old Michigan native's second consecutive top-5 and best career finish in just eight Xfinity Series starts. Any discussion about NASCAR's future inevitably starts with Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, but over the past two years, Jones has put his name into the conversation.
Slated to run the full Camping World Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports and a partial Xfinity schedule for Joe Gibbs Racing, Jones found himself drafted to run additional Xfinity races for JGR as a substitute for the injured Busch.
He's making the most of the additional seat time.
"We've been getting better every week and I'm definitely proud of everyone at JGR for getting these Camrys faster and faster every week," Jones said. "We went from the back of the top 10 when I first started running these races to the front of the top 10 and feeling like we can contend for wins.
"It's definitely a great feeling as a driver to be up running with Harvick and everybody," he continued. "We just need to get a little faster. We're lacking a little bit of speed somewhere. We're trying to work on it. We've got a lot of stuff in production to help that and hopefully find that little piece to get up there and grab a win here."
Only 27 races into his top-level stock car career, Jones is definitely deserving of the attention he is attracting. He has won four times in 19 Truck Series starts, and he's knocking on Victory Lane's door in Xfinity.
He's also intelligent and well-spoken. And still just 18.
And despite running with the big boys all day at Fontana at such an early stage of his career, he couldn't hide his disappointment in not beating all of them.
"Man, it's hard to run third," he said. "We want to win and we're trying to get there.
"We got stuck on the bottom every restart, so we lost more than a couple spots every time," he continued. "We made adjustments on it all day trying to get the thing a little bit better, but got tight as the run went on and just couldn't quite get that out of it. We'll have to figure something out to get that away. Obviously the 88 [Harvick] and Brendan were better than us in that aspect so we'll go back and keep working on it."
As enjoyable as his extra outings for JGR in the Xfinity Series have become, Jones knows his focus is still on the Truck Series championship with KBM.
"It's funny, I feel like I'm driving full-time Xfinity right now," he said. "But it's fun to get back into the truck. I think we all enjoy getting to be back with the guys at KBM and we've got some fast Tundras. We have a new package for Martinsville and it will be fun to go back there. We had a good run there last fall and that's a place I'd really love to grab a win at.
"It's early in the season, but we're ready to get going in the Truck Series and get that points battle under way."
The Xfinity Series now gets a short break, with action resuming April 10 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Camping World Truck Series: Getting back on track
Unlike the Xfinity Series, the Camping World Truck Series is about to end a four-week hiatus, with the trucks joining the Sprint Cup Series at Martinsville Speedway. The trucks roll off at 2:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.