Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – At Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, Chase Elliott once again was the victim of Murphy’s law.
In Friday’s time trials, Elliott won the pole for Sunday’s FanShield 500, marking the eighth straight top-10 start at Phoenix for the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Finishing races at the one-mile track, however, has been a problem for Elliott, and that proved true once again in the fourth NASCAR Cup Series event of the 2020 season. Elliott led the first 60 laps and finished second to Kevin Harvick in Stage 1.
He had a lead of more than one second over Brad Keselowski on Lap 156 but had to bring his car to pit road on Lap 156 because of a loose wheel. Though Elliott recovered to finish seventh, he was never a factor for the victory after the issue with the wheel.
And though he led a race-high 93 laps, that was small consolation for a lost opportunity with a fast car. A brush with the outside wall late in the race didn’t help matters. But Elliott should be able to return to Phoenix with confidence for the season finale in November—providing he can find a way to finish the race as effectively as he starts it.
“Yeah, certainly,” Elliott said. “We will build off of it for sure. Kevin (Harvick) was probably a tick better than us, I thought. But we’ll go to work.”
DESPITE DNF, TYLER REDDICK IMPRESSES IN NASCAR CUP DEBUT AT PHOENIX
Tyler Reddick’s No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet wasn’t running at the finish of Sunday’s FanShield 500, but the top finishers in the NASCAR Cup Series event certainly knew he had been there.
Reddick started 29th in a field of 38, but by the time the second stage ended on Lap 190, he had worked his way up to fourth, having passed Kyle Busch for the position. But after a two-tire call and a second-place restart on Lap 222, Reddick was shuffled back in the running order.
A flat tire on Lap 265 sent him rocketing into the Turn 2 wall and ended a promising race for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender.
“Well, we lost a tire there in (Turns) 1 and 2,” said Reddick, who was racing at Phoenix in the Cup Series for the first time. “I really don’t know what led to that. I don’t know if I just caught something on the race track or it just wasn’t meant to be. Our Chevrolet was really, really good today. I just made a couple of mistakes there that cost us track position.
“I don’t know if that’s what ultimately would have kept us from cutting a tire, but we were in really good shape there, and I just made a rookie mistake and fell back to the back half of the top 10, and from there we had our flat tire, and that was the end of our day, unfortunately.”
BAD LUCK CONTINUES TO HAUNT RYAN BLANEY, WHO MAKES EARLY EXIT
Ryan Blaney’s luck turned from bad to worse on Sunday, and it cost him the NASCAR Cup Series lead.
Despite a pit call at Las Vegas that cost him a chance to win and a corded tire at Auto Club Speedway that forced his No. 12 Ford to pit road from second place with three laps left in last Sunday’s race, Blaney was first in the standings on the strength of solid stage finishes in the first three races.
That came to an abrupt close in Sunday’s FanShield 500, when Blaney’s race ended before 10 laps before the first stage did.
Blaney was seventh for a restart on Lap 64, but when Denny Hamlin’s Toyota broke loose underneath Brad Keselowski’s Ford, Blaney’s Mustang was collected in the melee in the middle of Turns 3 and 4. Unable to continue after repair attempts on pit road, Blaney dropped out after completing 65 laps and fell from first to sixth in the series standings 41 points behind new leader Kevin Harvick.
“From the car, I couldn’t really see,” Blaney said of the accident that ended his day. “A couple of us were three-wide. I was happy to be on the top. I thought we were going to roll the top pretty good through (Turns) 3 and 4 there. It looks like the 11 tried to send it in there below the 2 and got loose and hit him and then over-corrected and got us.
“We got up in the dirt and we just ran right into the fence. Just an innocent bystander there. It sucks to have it end so early like that and have that happen so early in the race. We didn’t even have a chance to work on our car. We weren’t great the first run, but we made a big swing at it, and we don’t know how that change was. It stinks when you are taken out like that. We’ll just go on to Atlanta (next Sunday) and see what we can do.”
NASCAR’S STEVE O’DONNELL PRAISES IMPROVEMENTS IN SHORT-TRACK PACKAGE
Sunday’s FanShield 500 at Phoenix Raceway passed not only the eye test but also the statistical test, as far as the quality of racing was concerned.
With the NASCAR Cup Series car featuring a significantly small spoiler and modifications to the oil pan and splitter, the resulting reduction in downforce produced far more competitive racing than fans witnessed in two Phoenix events last year.
There were 20 lead changes among seven drivers on a track that featured a more liberal application of traction compound in the corners, as NASCAR worked to make the 2020 short-track package as compelling as possible.
“You certainly want to see a lot of what we saw today—a lot of different lead changes,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “And this comes from a lot of work from the entire industry, going back to Nashville (in the postseason), everybody getting together and talking about what could we collectively do…
“We saw a lot of different things happen during the race and emotions run pretty high, which is what you want, and a lot of comers and goers—and ultimately a really good race.”