Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – This is an especially important weekend on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule as teams compete Sunday in the Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – the historic 50th race at the recently-renovated venue that will host Championship Weekend in November.
Not only is there a trophy to win, but teams will use the race to help prepare for the title-stop later in the season.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin arrives in Phoenix leading the driver standings by 38 points over Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski. However, neither driver has hoisted a trophy yet this season.
Four different drivers – Michael McDowell (Daytona 500), Christopher Bell (Daytona road course), William Byron (Homestead-Miami) and last weekend’s winner, Kyle Larson (Las Vegas) – have won a race to start the season and secured a position in the June 13 NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway. Plus, they have locked themselves into the Playoffs.
Should a fifth different driver win this weekend it would mark the first time since 2017 a season has opened with five different winners. The record is 10 different winners – launching the 2000 schedule.
Only one of these 2021 winners – Byron – made the 2020 Playoffs. That leaves the more typical headline makers such as Hamlin, an eight-time winner in 2020 and the 2012 season champion Keselowski, a four-race winner last year still vying for their first trip to Victory Lane. Count the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott and perennial title-chasers Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch among those still driving for a victory in 2021 as well.
Team Penske’s Joey Logano is the defending race winner of this week’s Phoenix event, which marked the last regularly-scheduled race to run in 2020 before the sport took a time-out for COVID-19 and the resulting new competitive reality.
Among those without a victory this year, Harvick, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, has a particular stellar record at Phoenix with a series leading nine victories, 18 top fives and 25 top 10s in 36 starts. He leads the series in pre-race driver rating (110.6) at Phoenix and has the best average finish (8.917) as well.
A win this weekend would make him one of only six drivers in NASCAR Cup Series history to earn a double-digit victory total at a track – joining an esteemed list that also includes Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Jimmie Johnson, David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt.
Harvick started the year with three top-10 finishes, but suffered a 20th-place showing last week at Las Vegas. The last time he finished outside the top-10 in Phoenix was 2013 – 16 races ago. He was runner-up to Logano last March and finished seventh in November. His last win at the 1-mile track was Spring, 2018.
With a $178 million facility renovation at Phoenix – from track surface and configuration to grandstands and parking – Harvick is eager to restore his winning ways.
“Our Jimmy John’s team won several races on this configuration,” said Harvick, who is ranked seventh in the Cup standings. “It’s still the same racetrack that we’ve won the majority of our races on. The only thing that’s changed is the start-finish line. As you look at last year, we ran really well at the first race and really poorly at the second race. A lot of that just depends on where the grip level is and where your car settings are for that particular weekend. But it’s still a racetrack where we expect to go and contend for a win every time and, if we don’t, the expectations were not met.”
Hamlin, the points leader, has four top-five finishes in the last six Phoenix races including one of his two career wins there (Playoffs, 2019). The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was 20th in this Spring race last year and fourth in the season finale. Twice (2010 and 2017) he’s led more than 190 laps but didn’t win the race.
Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford, is racing for his first win at Phoenix. He has a pair of runner-up finishes in the last five events, including the Championship Finale last November.
Elliott, who claimed his first NASCAR Cup Series title with a win at Phoenix last November, has only one top-10 finish in 2021 – a runner-up in the Daytona 500 – even though he’s led laps in all four races. Certainly, the fact two of his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates have won already this season is encouraging for his No. 9 Chevrolet team as well.
Elliott has six top-10 finishes in 10 Phoenix starts and in the two races last year led 246 of the 402 scheduled laps.
“I am definitely looking forward to getting back to Phoenix this weekend,” Elliott said. “Our last trip there was something I will never forget. Obviously, it’s a new season, eyes forward for now and just thinking about what we need to do to be fast and have our car where it needs to be.
“I also hope we can learn a lot while we are there because you want to be prepared if you are in the Championship 4 at the end of the season.”
XFINITY SERIES KEEPS PRODUCING DIFFERENT WINNERS
There have been four different winners in as many NASCAR Xfinity Series races this season and plenty reason to expect a fifth in Saturday’s Call 811 Before You Dig 200 presented by Arizona 811 (5:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Championship leader Austin Cindric, who won the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway, arrives at the one-mile Phoenix Raceway as the most recent race winner. His victory there last November earned the 22-year-old his first NASCAR championship and has by all accounts, helped put Cindric on a high-octane performance course in 2021.
He is the only driver to earn top-five finishes in every race this season and his 163 laps led is nearly double that of any other driver. Last week’s Las Vegas race winner, A.J. Allmendinger is second with 93 laps out front.
Both Cindric and Allmendinger are well aware that their stiffest competition this weekend may well come from 24-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver Brandon Jones, who is ranked third in the Xfinity Series championship standings.
The driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is the defending winner of the Phoenix Spring race, finished third in the season finale race. And Jones has finished top-10 in four of his last five starts on the desert oval. His 3.556-second win over Harrison Burton last March was the largest margin of victory in nine Xfinity Series races at Phoenix – since Kyle Busch dominated the race by more than 6-seconds in November, 2016.
“Our 19 Toyota team is thrilled to be heading back to Phoenix,” Jones said. “We had a pivotal win there last spring when we won against our teammate Kyle Busch. You take that strong win and mix it with us coming off our third consecutive top-four finish in the past three races. This momentum gives us the confidence to build on and focus on winning at Phoenix Raceway.
“As we look at data and notes from last year, I have already picked up on several areas where I can improve. This is an important weekend for our team to learn as much as possible; with Phoenix being the track that will hold the title to the Xfinity Series Championship later this year.”
They will undoubtedly face a challenge from series veteran and JR Motorsports driver Justin Allgaier, a two-time Phoenix race winner – the only current fulltime Xfinity Series driver with multiple wins (2017 and 2020) at the 1-mile track. His 461 laps led at Phoenix is most among series regulars and he’s scored top-10 finishes in nine of the last 13 races.
Another Joe Gibbs Racing driver, Daniel Hemric shows up in Phoenix extremely motivated. He finished runner-up to Allmendinger at Las Vegas last weekend – the eighth second-place finish in the series for the well-liked North Carolinian. He has three top-five finishes in four races this year and his effort last week will put him in pole position this week at Phoenix, where he has a pair of top-five finishes in six Xfinity Series starts; including a runner-up in Fall, 2018.
This weekend marks the second NASCAR Xfinity Series start for 18-year-old Ty Gibbs, grandson to NASCAR Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs, who showed some serious competitive mettle by winning at the Daytona Road Course in February – in his series debut in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Gibbs has an ARCA Menards Series West victory at in three Phoenix starts. If Gibbs were to win in his first two consecutive races he would become the first driver in NASCAR Xfinity Series history to accomplish the feat.
The rookie’s veteran team has every expectation for another solid outing.
“The No. 54 team is excited to go back to the racetrack with Ty Gibbs in Phoenix,” said the team’s crew chief Chris Gayle. “Ty did such an exceptional job at the Daytona Road Course of being cautious and learning as a rookie driver, mixed with being very aggressive late in the race when he was in position to win the event. He’s really good at Phoenix and we’re looking forward to helping him progress and learn more at his first oval event for this team. Not every event will go as smoothly or successfully as DRC (Daytona Road Course), but it’s important we remain focused on helping Ty get valuable experience at a variety of racetracks and continue to develop his skills behind the wheel.”
Other drivers deserving a watch this week include 22-year-old JR Motorsports driver Noah Gragson, who had a rough start to the 2021 season but rebounded last week with a fifth-place finish at his home track in Las Vegas – his first top five of the year. Gragson has never finished worse than 11th in four Phoenix starts with results of seventh in this race last year and runner-up in the November finale.
Jeb Burton, who is competing in his first fulltime season with Kaulig Motorsports, has been ranked among the top-five in the standings all season. The 28-year-old son of former Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton, has finished top-10 in every race this year with best showings of fourth-place at the Daytona International Speedway season-opener and at Homestead-Miami Speedway in South Florida two weeks ago. He finished 17th in his only Xfinity Series start at Phoenix back in 2016.