Sunday’s FanShield 500 (3:30 p.m. ET/FOX/MRN) Race Preview

FanShield 500

TRACK: Phoenix Raceway (1-Mile, Short Oval) DISTANCE: 312 Laps – STAGE 1/2 75 LAPS, FINAL STAGE 162 LAPS (312 MILES)
WEATHER: RAIN 80% CHANCE SATURDAY, SUN 68 DEGREES SUNDAY

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Kyle Busch (+400)

This may be his best track now. “Rowdy” enters Phoenix with nine consecutive top seven finishes including six of them being in the top four. Furthermore, Busch has finished either first or second in each of the last two years (4 starts) on the 1-mile track including six top three results in his last seven tries. He was runner-up last week.

Martin Truex Jr. (+550)

He’s never won at Phoenix before and frankly, until he joined Joe Gibbs Racing, he never was much of a threat there. But, Truex, has since finished third in the Fall of 2017, fifth in the spring race of 2018, runner-up in last year’s spring race and sixth in November to make himself a viable “favorite.”

Kevin Harvick (+600)

The proverbial “king of the desert” has been astounding in Phoenix. Since 2012, Harvick has seven wins alone to go along with nine top two finishes (16 tries). Furthermore, Harvick has finished worse than sixth just twice in those 16 starts too. His last eight spring race finishes are – second, 13th, first, first, first, sixth, first and ninth respectively.

Denny Hamlin (+750)

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has seven top 10 finishes in his last nine starts in the desert. Hamlin, was fifth in this race a year ago and won the Fall race last November. He also has two top six finishes in three races this season.

Ryan Blaney (+1,000)

Arguably the top Penske driver at this track. Blaney, may have only scored two top five finishes in eight Phoenix starts but two of which were both third place efforts last year. He’s had arguably the best race car all season with what should have been three top two finishes in as many tries.

Chase Elliott (+1,100)

This is a tough one, but for his odds, why not? Elliott, enters Phoenix with three straight finishes in the desert of 14th or worse. But, in four of his previous five starts, the Georgia native had a top 10 including a third in this race in 2018.

Sleepers

Alex Bowman (+1,600)

Why not here? For +1,600 odds for a driver that’s had a top two car the last two weeks. Bowman, nearly won this race when he led 194 laps back in 2016.

Kyle Larson (+2,000)

It’s only a matter of time before Larson wins in Phoenix. The California native was sixth and fourth respectively in last year’s two visits to the desert and sixth in the 2018 fall race for three consecutive top six finishes. Furthermore, Larson has four top six finishes in his last six starts there overall including a runner-up in this very race in 2017.

Aric Almirola (+2,800)

Since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing, Almirola has been stout in Phoenix. The Florida native has finished in the top 10 in four of his last five starts including a fourth place run in this very race last March. He was eighth in Fontana too.

Erik Jones (+3,300)

Watch out for the other Joe Gibbs Racing driver as he’s scored a top 10 in four of his six Phoenix starts. He’s coming off of a top 10 finish last Sunday.

GettyImages-1186770107-781x520
Joey Logano races his No. 22 Ford during last year’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at the Phoenix Raceway

Not One Of Penske’s Best Tracks

You may be wondering despite a strong start to the season why I don’t have many Penske’s on here. Well, to put it quite simply, this isn’t one of their stronger tracks.

In the 15 years of this race being in existence, Penske has never visited victory lane in it. Brad Keselowski (+1,200) has just two top five finishes at Phoenix since 2015 and was only 19th and 10th respectively last year.

Joey Logano (+1,100) has just two top 10 finishes in his last six Phoenix starts but only one top five (win in 2016) in his last eight combined Phoenix starts too.

Blaney is their only saving grace as he’s only had three top five finishes in eight career Phoenix starts but two of them were third place finishes in each race last year.

Can Hendrick Get Going Again In Phoenix?

When this race debuted on the schedule in 2005, Hendrick Motorsports was the top team to beat. HMS won three of the first five races in the spring event’s history including four of the first seven. But, that win in 2011 was their last trip to victory lane in the spring race.

Chase Elliott started his Phoenix career hot with four top 10 finishes in five tries including two top three results, but he’s since faded with a 23rd place finish (Fall 2018) and 14th and 39th respectively last year.

William Byron has one top 10 in four tries with his finishes being 12th, ninth, 24th and 17th respectively.

Alex Bowman nearly won the Fall race in 2016 in a fill in role for Dale Earnhardt Jr. but in his other four HMS starts recently, he was 13th, 30th, 35th and 23rd respectively.

It could come down to if Jimmie Johnson still has any magic left. Johnson, hasn’t scored a top five at Phoenix since 2015 and has only led 17 laps around the 1-mile track since then. But prior to that, he, not Harvick, was the “King of the Desert.”

Johnson, was 14th and 15th in 2018, under this package but eighth and 14th under last year’s package.

While they’ve went backwards, they’re now moving forward again. Johnson, says that they’re moving in right direction after he’s scored two top seven finishes in-a-row on the season. Elliott, finished fourth last weekend in Fontana while Bowman led 110 of 200 laps en route to the victory.

The top two drivers in laps led so far this season is Bowman (113) and Elliott (93). HMS drivers have won four of the six stages this year too.

They’re back.

Chevrolet’s Upward Trend

Alex Bowman’s No. 88 Chevrolet unloaded off the truck last Friday at the Auto Club Speedway race ready. Bowman, was quickest in both practice sessions on single lap speed to go along with being quickest in five lap and 10 lap averages too.

Everyone tabbed the Hendrick Motorsports driver as the favorite.

Bowman, backed up those expectations with a dominating win in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 in Fontana. For the second straight week, his Chevrolet was among the best cars in the end to win. The weekend prior in Las Vegas, if not for a late race caution, Bowman was likely going to pass Ryan Blaney for the victory in the Pennzoil 400. At the very least, he was going to finish second.

But, it’s not just Bowman that’s running well lately. It’s all three of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates too. It’s really, all of the Chevy camp. That’s saying a lot.

It took 10 races before a Chevy driver reached victory lane in 2019. We’re only three weeks in now and they’ve already won.

He and others can thank Chevy for spending a lot of money this past offseason updating their Camaro. It was money that some questioned on how worth it that it was. A new car is coming out in 2021, so why update a car that’s going away in nine months?

Well, Chevy isn’t okay with being down. They’ve been embarrassed the last three years. Since Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 championship, a Chevy driver hasn’t been in the Championship 4 in the Cup Series over the last three years. They were going to go for broke in 2020 to end that drought.

So far, it’s working.

“I think the new body has helped us a lot, the new Camaro,” Bowman said last Sunday. “Any change we make, we make for a reason, and Chevy did a good job with that car.”

Chevy not only won in Fontana with Bowman but they put four cars in the top seven overall. Last year, they had just two cars in the top 10 for the entire race as they finished sixth and 10th.

In Vegas, Chevy had six cars finish in the top 10 including four in the top six (all from different organizations). In 2019, Chevy only had two cars in the top 10 too.

Right now, it’s clear that Chevy is far ahead of pace in 2020 from where they were at this time in 2019. In 2019, Chevy only had three cars place in the top 10 in the spring race at Phoenix last year and one in the Fall race.

Will New Rules Package Help Toyota’s This Weekend?

Joe Gibbs Racing had three cars finish in the top 10 in last Sunday’s Auto Club 400. If not for a slow final pit stop for Martin Truex Jr. towards the end, all four likely would have seen their numbers in the top 10 of the scoring pylon when it was all said and done last weekend from the Auto Club Speedway.

Seems pretty good right?

Well, if you take a deeper look at things, the Toyota/JGR camp is a bit worried as we head to the final race of the west coast swing next weekend at the Phoenix Raceway.

Following a rough go of it two weeks ago in Las Vegas, everyone was wondering if the Toyota camp had somehow lost speed from a year ago. In Vegas, they finished 15-17-20-23. They never were a factor all weekend.

Then, in practice and qualifying last weekend in Fontana, they weren’t a factor yet again. Yes, they had long run pace, but short run speed wasn’t there.

In the end, Kyle Busch finished runner-up, Denny Hamlin sixth and Erik Jones 10th.

Their problem is, if you take away Daytona, they’re not leading laps. They led one combined lap in each of the last two weeks.

While they went 19-for-36 last year in wins, they’re 0-for-3 in 2020.

In Fontana, Truex Jr. had led 73 laps in 2017, 125 in 2018 but just three last Sunday. Busch, led 62 laps in 2018 and 134 last year. He led none last Sunday and also didn’t lead any laps in the Vegas weekend either.

“Slow, we were slow,” Busch said following his third straight top three finish in Fontana. “Just didn’t have the speed overall today for some reason. Then, there at the end felt like the tires were worn out at the last bit of the race.  Just frustrating day for us with our Interstate Batteries Camry. I just feel like we’re kind of missing it a little bit – here, here, here and here and those things kind of add up and drag you down a little bit.”

His teammate in Hamlin agreed.

“We’re still slow,” said the Daytona 500 winner following his second top six finish in three tries in 2020. “Our cars handled okay. If we don’t have a draft, we’re just run over. It’s tough because I feel like we’re getting beat on throttle time, but we’re also just getting murdered down the straightaways. Just need more horsepower, more downforce and less drag. If we can have all those, we’ll be better.”

Busch, said that they have a lot that they need to do to get better.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Busch continued. “Guys did a great job here though just trying to work on it and trying to make everything we could out of it all day long, all weekend long. Interstate Batteries Camry wasn’t a second place car, but thankfully we got a good finish out of here and try to get some points. Guys are doing all they can, I know along with everybody at TRD (Toyota Racing Development). I appreciate all the hard work, we just have to get a little bit better. We finished the end of last year so strong, I don’t know what we’re missing here. Obviously, it’s a little bit of something here and maybe a little bit of something in a few different areas, but overall good car today.”

Now, comes the rule change back to the 2018 package for Phoenix this weekend. While they swept both races a year ago in going 1-2-5 in this very race a year ago and 1-2-6-7 in the Fall, maybe this is a breath of fresh air. Toyota won the Fall race in November of 2018 in this very package. They were 2-4-5 in the Spring race. They won the 2017 Fall race too giving them four wins in the last five tries in the desert.

But, if they come out and look pedestrian like they have through three races run this year, then they may be in some major trouble.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series TicketGuardian 500
AVONDALE, AZ – MARCH 11: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Skittles Sweet Heat Toyota, leads a pack of cars during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway on March 11, 2018 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Big Change From Last Year’s Racing Package To This Years

This season so far has looked a lot like 2019. The Daytona 500 in 2019 was won by Denny Hamlin. He won this year’s race too. In Vegas, Joey Logano won the last two spring races now. For Fontana, the site of last weekend’s race, Kyle Busch won in 2019 and finished second in 2020.

This weekend’s race though, may finally see a chance. It will hopefully look a whole lot different than last year’s. See, NASCAR listened to the race fans about the boring new rules package on short tracks for 2019. The ho-hum races left fans wanting more. So, NASCAR has altered the rules from 2019 to 2020 on these types of circuits with Phoenix being the first track we’re going to see this on. The previous three tracks were high speed circuits with Daytona (2.5-mile tri-oval), Las Vegas (1.5-mile oval) and Fontana (2-mile, D-Shaped oval).

So, what’s different then?

The changes include significantly smaller spoilers, splitters and other aerodynamic devices in an effort to place a greater emphasis on handling and driver input with less stabilizing downforce on those tracks. The package draws inspiration from similar rules used in the 2017-18 seasons.

“Our first and foremost core goal is to deliver great racing, and I think that we constantly evaluate the things that we do on the race track, however and wherever we need to, to improve that situation for them,” said John Probst, NASCAR Senior Vice President, Innovation and Racing Development. “And as part of our normal ongoing critique of ourselves and how we’re doing, we just felt like this was a good opportunity for us to improve the on-track product at the short tracks and road courses.”

Among the changes for those specific tracks:

  • A significantly smaller rear spoiler, which shrinks from an 8-inch height to 2.75 inches.
  • The front splitter’s overhang will now measure a quarter-inch (down from 2 inches), with approximately 2-inch wings (reduced from 10.5 inches).
  • Alterations to the radiator pan, removing its vertical fencing in an effort to reduce front-end downforce. The dimensions of the pan remain the same.

The changes will be in effect for nine of the 24 layouts — three road courses and six ovals — that the NASCAR Cup Series will visit in 2020.

The six oval tracks that will use the new rules this season:

  • Bristol Motor Speedway (.533 miles)
  • Dover International Speedway (1 mile)
  • Martinsville Speedway (.526 miles)
  • New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1.058 miles)
  • Phoenix Raceway (1 mile)
  • Richmond Raceway (.75 miles)

All three road courses on the Cup Series schedule will have the new rules in place:

  • Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2.28 miles)
  • Sonoma Raceway (2.52 miles)
  • Watkins Glen International (2.45 miles)

“When we consider changes to the aero package, we often can look back on our playbook, if you will, from seasons past,” Probst said, “and there’s obviously some trade-offs that you make between introducing something completely new that the industry has never seen versus something that we have run before where we have a playbook from our side and (teams) have setup books from their end. We felt like we were going to look at aero packages that we have run in the past, and looking back at a lot of competitive metrics that we track, we feel like the 2017 levels of downforce on those types of tracks had pretty good side-by-side racing that our fans enjoyed.

“So instead of just coming out and creating a completely new aero spec that’s unknown to possibly us and more importantly the industry, we felt like we’d go back to something that’s tried and true for us and go back to a package that we had run recently. At the same time, we did make some small adjustments to that package so that it would fit with our current intermediate speedway package so that we’d minimize further the necessity of the teams to have to develop this package.”

This was absolutely the right move. I mean, just look at the final round races in the playoffs this season — Bristol, Charlotte (ROVAL), Martinsville and Phoenix (championship). This move affects all those tracks.

As an example, the Dover playoff race last year, a track one-mile in length, had 14 lead changes, most of those occurring during green flag pit sequences. We only saw three cautions on the entire day, two of which being for stage breaks and the other on the seventh lap for debris. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson combined to lead 372 of the 400 laps run.

In the May race at Dover, Truex and Chase Elliott combined to lead 277 of the 400 that day. Furthermore, the top five finishers in the spring race led 290 of the 400 laps. The same top four finishers in May were the ones taking the top four spots in October.

The Spring race read – Truex-Bowman-Larson-Harvick as the top four.

The opening race the second round at Dover read – Larson-Truex-Bowman-Harvick as the top four.

“Tough to pass” was the comment theme out of the drivers’ mouths after the race ended.

“It’s just really hard to pass and it took a while for the track to widen out,” said third place finisher that day Alex Bowman.

“Once we lost control – lost the clean air – it was so difficult to pass,” said fifth place finisher Denny Hamlin who led a race high 218 laps that Sunday. “I needed to be up front with as tight as my car was.”

“The car was really fast,” said seventh place finisher Matt DiBenedetto. “Even faster than seventh-place, but you get in situations with the dirty air and with the high downforce it was a lot harder to pass. The fastest drivers had to be a lot more disciplined. You had to stay behind them and not abuse your stuff and wait for traffic or situations to pounce.”

“When we were in clean air, our lap times were great,” Jimmie Johnson said, who also finished eighth. “Just as everyone experienced, it was really tough to pass. We had a few things that set us back and lost track position throughout the day. But we had a really fast race car. We were able to pass some, which I don’t think many could pass at all.”

“We started 17th and finished 10th, I don’t know,” said 10th place Clint Bowyer. “It was hard to pass. Extremely hard to pass. Almost impossible. You had to have a really, really good car. It was just kind of a struggle out there all day long for us.”

“It was very hard to pass today at Dover,” said Daniel Suarez.

“I had a difficult time passing cars, especially in traffic,” said Austin Dillon.

They’re right. The eye test showed a lot of single file running with the difficulty to pass at an all time high. It happened in both Phoenix races, another one-mile track. Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney combined to lead 291 of 312 laps in the March race. Furthermore, four of the top five finishers that day led 304 of the 312 laps run. Stats show 17 lead changes but again, most were on green flag pit sequences.

New Hampshire, a one-mile track, had 14 lead changes but between Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, they led all but 29 laps that July day.

One mile tracks aren’t producing on track lead changes, they’re producing some dominating runs instead.

Richmond and Martinsville, tracks shorter than one mile in length did too. In the spring race at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway, Brad Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps. Second place finisher Chase Elliott led 49 of 500 laps himself. Between them, that’s 495 of 500 laps led. Joey Logano led the other five laps in a four lead change race.

Richmond’s spring race saw eight lead changes. The top eight finishers led all 400 laps with Truex Jr. and Busch leading 287 of the 400 laps.

The playoff Richmond race saw Truex, Busch and Keselowski lead all 400 laps in a six lead change race.

So, why was passing on these tracks so hard under the old package?

Well, with a high downforce package, the cornering speeds are higher. There’s less time off the throttle. Drivers are nearly flat out through the turns which means it’s hard to pass when you’re going the same speed.

Also, factor in the dirty air in wake with the large spoiler throwing dirty air on the front end of the cars behind and you get follow the leader racing.

How can you pass when the front end is either too tight or too loose? How can you close in when you and the car in front are going the same speed anyways?

That’s why the on track product with that package was hurting racing. Now, it’s back in the right direction.

1st Time In Playoff Era That Championship Race Will Have 2 Trips To Track In Same Season

The new playoff era was adopted in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2004. Since that time, the season finale has always taken place at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Over the last 16 seasons, NASCAR went to the South Florida race track just once each year. That meant that Homestead was its own breed.

See, with only one visit to the race track each year, by time we got to Homestead in November, the only data we had for that race was the previous year’s. That separated the annual stop from everything else.

This year, the championship race moves west to the Phoenix Raceway. NASCAR goes to Phoenix twice a year still, including this weekend, meaning that for the first time since 2001, the season finale race will be a return trip from an early race that season.

But, what’s different about 2001 and 2020 is, that season was run on an accumulation of a whole seasons worth of points. Now, it’s just four drivers and whomever crosses the finish line first among them wins the championship.

Everything you could potentially learn from Phoenix this weekend could translate over to November too, meaning this is arguably the most important race weekend of the season. With only two practice sessions at your disposal on Friday, you need to be sure you get your notebooks full.

Also, add to the fact that this weekend’s race as well as November’s championship event will be run under a different aero package from last year’s. There’s more horsepower, less downforce via a smaller spoiler in 2020 compared to 2019’s racing package.

Virtually, this is similar to 2018’s with some slight differences in tire compounds, a passenger side window, etc. Also, the track will have PJ1 traction compound added but this time lower in the corners than last year too.

That makes 2020 a bit different than 2018.

“It’s definitely unique going to the track twice,” Martin Truex Jr. said of a place hosting the championship as well as a spring race too. “I don’t necessarily like that. I like that Homestead was a one-off deal.”

Also, one driver is concerned that even with filling the notebook this weekend, will the compound even be used this Fall?

“There are a lot of questions I have about the PJ1,” Brad Keselowski said. “They are putting it down, but will they put it down in the fall? That could potentially make it not as important if they change what they are going to do there.”

Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate, Joey Logano, says that he thinks with all the unknowns, this weekend could be the most important race this season.

“I think everyone looks at Phoenix 1 now being maybe the most important race early in the season because it will be where you are racing for a championship,” the 2017 champion said. “You need to really learn as much as possible.”

Blaney/Bowman Quickest Cars This Season So Far

Ryan Blaney finished second in the Daytona 500. He should have finished second in last Sunday’s race in Fontana. If not for his tires literally falling off, he was going to cruise to his second runner-up in three starts this season. Unfortunately, he had a late race pit stop to change tires and saw his No. 12 Ford go from second to 19th with three laps-to-go. Factor in that late race caution in Vegas, a race Blaney was leading at the time, they he’d have three top two finishes in as many starts in 2020.

That’s a great start.

Same for Alex Bowman.

He won while leading a race high 110 of 200 laps at Fontana last Sunday. He was running second to Blaney in Vegas before that final caution.

As we head to Phoenix, Bowman and Blaney should have finished 1-2 in each of the last two weeks. Can they do so on Sunday?

Blaney, finished third in both races in the desert last year. Bowman, while success has been limited in Phoenix, he didn’t have much success at Fontana either but went out and dominated.

Harvick Searching For Long Run Speed

Kevin Harvick is the only one standing now in the NASCAR Cup Series in one main stat – top 10 finishes. Through three races run thus far, Harvick is the only driver to finish inside of the top 10 in all of them.

Harvick, was fifth in the season opening Daytona 500, eighth two weeks ago in the Pennzoil 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and now ninth in last weekend’s Auto Club 400 in Fontana.

But, the pace isn’t in his No. 4 Ford for what he would have liked.

In Daytona, he rode around at the back for most of the race to stay out of trouble and was there in the end for a top five. In Vegas, he had great early run speed but his car faded as a stint went on. Yes, he’s led 92 laps in all so far, third most in the series, but all those were early in runs.

At the Auto Club Speedway, he started up front but quickly faded. Harvick and his team changed everything but the kitchen sink on his No. 4 Ford as the weekend went on. He wasn’t happy with his car on Friday. They changed a lot and surprised themselves with a good qualifying effort on Saturday. His race car though was less than desired.

He quickly faded to finish 14th in Stage 1. The California native rebounded to 10th in Stage 2. He just didn’t have enough to go further up.

Phoenix, has been a real strong suit for him, but if this race despite the new rules package runs caution free for a while, can Harvick’s crew keep up with his car to help him on long run pace?

Harvick can became the ninth different driver to have won nine or more times at a single track when he won in 2018 at Phoenix Raceway. Now he can attempt to become just the sixth driver to win 10 or more races at a single track with a win this weekend:

Drivers with 10 or More NASCAR Cup Series Wins at a Single Track

Race Winners

No. of Tracks

Tracks With 10 or More Wins

Richard Petty

5

Martinsville (15), North Wilkesboro (15), Richmond (13), Rockingham (11) Daytona (10)

Darrell Waltrip

3

Bristol (12), Martinsville (11), North Wilkesboro (10)

Jimmie Johnson

1

Dover (11)

David Pearson

1

Darlington (10)

Dale Earnhardt

1

Talladega (10)

Key Trends

Starting position matters here. The last five Phoenix winners have come from a top 10 starting spot. In fact, nine of the last 11 have started in the first 5 Rows including six of those nine from the top four starting spots.

Also, Joe Gibbs Racing has won three straight races in Phoenix including four of the last five too. Watch out for their foursome on Sunday.

With the scheduling change this year, Phoenix moves from the penultimate race of the season to the final race, meaning that when we come back this November, we will crown a champion.

That puts extra importance on this race this weekend because you want to know what direction you need to go in this Fall. That can make or break a championship or not. But, the driver to win the spring race in Phoenix has only went on to win the series championship just three times – Terry Labonte (1984), Dale Earnhardt (1990) and Jeff Gordon (1995).

Also, expect a late race caution. Five of the last nine races have seen a finale green flag stretch to the finish of three or less laps.

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