Joey Logano’s victory last Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, along with teammate Brad Keselowski’s win at Atlanta Motor Speedway the week before, officially makes Team Penske the class of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field heading to Phoenix, Arizona for Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: TicketGuardian 500
The Place: ISM Raceway
The Date: Sunday, March 10
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 312 miles (312 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 75),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 150), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 312)
2018 Winner: Kevin Harvick
Logano’s showing gives him a slim two-point edge atop the driver points standings over Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick heading to Phoenix – a one-mile oval that Harvick has dominated in recent times with nine Cup trophies to show.
Keselowski in particular has been good at ISM Raceway, scoring a pole position in 2014 and tallying nine top-10 finishes in 19 starts. Plus, he was runner-up in last season’s Playoff race. Logano has a win at ISM Raceway in the fall of 2016 but has crashed out of two of the last four races there – including last fall.
With two of its three drivers already Playoff-qualified, Team Penske is eager to get its newest member Ryan Blaney on track after an uncharacteristically frustrating start to his season. While Logano and Keselowski are ranked first and fifth in the standings, Blaney is still looking for his first top-10 finish of the year.
Blaney won the pole position at ISM Raceway in the fall of 2017 and has two top-10 finishes in six races on the one-mile track. He’s finished 16th or worse in the last four races, however.
Harvick could join elite club with win at Phoenix
Last year, Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick carried back-to-back wins (at Atlanta and Las Vegas) into Phoenix, where he triumphed again and completed an early season trifecta, scoring a .773-second win over Kyle Busch. This weekend, if Harvick were to win, he would join an elite group, becoming just the sixth driver in series history to win 10 or more Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races at a single track; joining Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Jimmie Johnson, David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt.
Drivers with 10 or More Monster Energy 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)|
Harvick is still looking for his first victory of 2019 – rebounding from a crash in the season-opening Daytona 500 with back-to-back fourth-place finishes at Atlanta and Vegas. He trails points leader Joey Logano by only two points heading into Sunday’s race.
While Kevin Harvick dominated the Phoenix headlines for a decade, there have been seven different race winners in as many races of late. Harvick defends his spring win at Phoenix coming off strong showings the previous two weeks. His 88 laps out front at Las Vegas on Sunday was more than the race winner Logano (86).
Although his Stewart-Haas Racing team boasted four drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs last year, Harvick is the only driver on the team currently ranked among the top 10 – Harvick (second), Aric Almirola (11th), Clint Bowyer (13th) and Daniel Suarez (18th).
Kyle Busch came so close
Kyle Busch came one victory away from a three-race winner’s sweep last weekend at his hometown Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He won the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series races, but finished third – behind Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski – in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race there. Busch is now the only driver in the series with top 10s in all three season-opening races, however.
Busch is still buoyed by collecting NASCAR national series victories 196 and 197 at Vegas and shows up at ISM Raceway with an enviable track record there of late. He will compete in both the Monster Energy Series and Xfinity Series this weekend.
In the Cup ranks, Busch is a three-time pole winner (2006, 2012, 2016) and holds an interesting record among current drivers for longest time between race wins at the track – 13 years. Busch won in November of 2005 in his second start on the oval and then again last fall in his 27th start at the track.
In three of the last four Phoenix races, the 2015 Monster Energy Series champion has led 359 laps, including 117 in his win during last year’s November Playoff run – the first under the new configuration of the track.
“You’ve got to have a good car, but you’ve got to have good brakes,’’ said Busch, who drives the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry. “You’ve got to have a good-turning car, and you’ve got to have a good car that can accelerate off of Turn 2 and go fast down the backstretch.”
“Phoenix is a pretty neat place, even though they made some changes with the repave. The track has worn in with racing and the sun, so it’s getting back to a fun place again. It was interesting to see how the place raced last fall with the change in where the start-finish line is and how that changed the racing.
“For some reason, I’ve always run well there. I don’t know if it’s that I’m comfortable being back close to home on the West Coast, or what. I always have a little more fan support out there, as well. As for the track itself, you’ve always had two distinctly different corners at Phoenix, which makes it fun and challenging all at the same time.”
Reboot: ISM Raceway might be coming at right time for Hendrick Motorsports
The ISM Raceway 1-mile oval may be exactly the venue the championship Hendrick Motorsports team looks to regain form. Not only does team veteran Jimmie Johnson have four wins at the track – including three consecutively from 2007-2008 – Chase Elliott has quickly proven to be strong at the venue.
Elliott boasts four top-10 finishes in six starts at ISM Raceway, including a third-place showing in this race last year and a runner-up finish in the fall of 2017. He led 117 laps in this spring race in 2017, finishing 12th.
Nearby Tucson is home to teammate Alex Bowman, giving the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 particular motivation. He won the pole, led a race-best 194 laps and finished a career-best sixth at Phoenix in the fall of 2016, his first time at ISM Raceway in a Hendrick car.
Robust Start: Chip Ganassi Racing duo hot early
Chip Ganassi Racing has extended a team-high mark with both its drivers Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch being ranked among the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ top-10 for the third-straight week. The distinction marks the first time the team has had both of its drivers in the top 10 of the championship standings – Larson (sixth) and Busch (10th)..
Larson is ranked sixth in the driver points standings, 31 points behind Joey Logano, and he leads the series in laps led with 142 (17.7%). The western swing of the Monster Energy Series schedule has proven to be a positive for the 25-year-old Californian. He has three top-three finishes at ISM Raceway, including a third-place last fall and a runner-up in the spring race in 2017. He’s led laps in three of the last four visits to ISM Raceway.
The veteran and 2004 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kurt Busch has made his transition from Stewart-Haas Racing to the Chip Ganassi Racing group look easy. He’s coming off back-to-back top-five finishes at Atlanta (third) and his home track in Las Vegas (fifth).
Busch has 18 top-10 finishes in 32 starts on the ISM Raceway, with a win in the spring of 2005 after leading a dominating 219 of 312 laps. Busch has certainly put himself in contention in recent years at Phoenix – leading laps in both races last year – but has only one top-10 finish in the last four races. He led 52 laps last fall but was involved in a crash only 40 laps from the checkered flag.
House Party: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. having best start of career
Roush Fenway Racing’s driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is having the best Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season start of his seven-year fulltime career. He’s ranked seventh in the driver championship coming to Phoenix – ahead of former champions such as Martin Truex Jr. (eighth) and Kurt Busch (10th). His previous best three-race start to a season resulted in an 11th place ranking (in 2013 and 2016). And he’s led laps (22 total) in the opening three races of 2019.
ISM Raceway may well be a challenge for the former Xfinity Series champion. He’s never led a lap there and has one top-five finish (fourth in 2017) in 12 starts. He finished 23rd in this race last year and crashed out in the Fall, finishing 33rd.
Stenhouse remarked on his strong start last week, noting a solid relationship with veteran crew chief Brian Pattie has made a big difference in his Monster Energy Series performance.
“Brian brings me a lot of confidence,’’ Stenhouse said. “We believe in each other on this team.’’
Pattie reciprocated the optimism and praised his driver for his aggressive style that has undeniably resulted in the strongest start of Stenhouse’s career.
“He’s confident,’’ Pattie said. “I want someone that’s eager and greedy. We’re going to continue to work hard, get aggressive and see where it shakes out.’’
His Roush-Fenway teammate Ryan Newman has an opposing story. He’s still looking for his first top 10 of 2019 since moving from the Richard Childress Racing team this season and is ranked 19th in the standings. But he has a good history at ISM Raceway, including a record four pole positions and a pair of spring wins in 2010 and 2017.
Reality Check: Logano swipes points lead from Hamlin
Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin slipped from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver points lead following his 10th-place showing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend and now trails Joey Logano by six markers heading to ISM Raceway. It’s certainly a track in his wheelhouse. Hamlin has shown himself to be one of the better racers on the series’ shorter tracks.
Hamlin won the pole position in his very first Monster Energy Series start at Phoenix in 2005 and earned another in the fall of 2014. His only win there came in the spring of 2012. He has five top-10 finishes in the last seven races – three in the last three spring races. Twice he’s led 190 laps or more and did not win (2010 and 2017). But there’s plenty to be encouraged by when his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota Camry team arrives in Phoenix. Hamlin has 11 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in 27 starts at the one-miler.
“We had a couple tough pit stops last weekend in Las Vegas that set us back, and we just needed a little more speed to get those spots back,’’ Hamlin said. “We will have to be at our best from start to finish in Phoenix, and the entire team is working hard and will be ready for the challenge that awaits us.”
Seamless Transition: Truex quickly up to speed with Joe Gibbs Racing
Martin Truex Jr. has certainly put himself in contention since moving to the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 Toyota Camry this year from the Furniture Row Racing team with whom he won the 2017 championship. He’s ranked seventh in the series driver points standings, tied with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Erik Jones, 35-points behind the standings leader Joey Logano.
And for all of Truex’ great reputation on the 1.5-mile intermediate tracks, he’s certainly proven himself skilled on the challenging Phoenix mile of late. He won the pole position there last spring and led three laps and finished fifth. He has two top fives in the last three races (including a third-place finish in the 2017 Playoff race). He also has nine top 10s in 26 total starts.
“We are looking forward to getting to Phoenix this weekend,’’ said Truex, who concedes his team is still finding its groove in the early season which features four different styles of track in the opening five weeks.
“Regardless of what aero package we run there, you’re always looking for the same things from the car. You’ve got to turn in the center and be able to have really good drive off.
“We’ve had some good runs there the past few years – obviously winning the pole last year and being up front leading laps. It will be fun to get to our first sort of short track of the year and see where we’re at there after a couple of 1.5-mile tracks.”
Rookie Progress: 2019 Class has jumped right in
|YTD Rookie Standings|
JTG Daugherty Racing’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate, Ryan Preece, continues to impress in his first full season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. He finished a solid 25th in his Las Vegas series track debut with the team to retain the top ranking among the four-driver 2019 Sunoco Rookie of the Year class. He now holds a 10-point lead in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings over Richard Childress Racing’s Daniel Hemric in second place.
Hemric showed the strongest finish at Las Vegas among the rookie foursome with a 23rd. Hemric is now ranked 29th in the driver championship standings, still looking for his first top-15. He has good history at Phoenix, finishing runner-up in the Xfinity Series race there during the Playoffs last November.
Front Row Motorsport’s Matt Tifft is looking for his first top-20 finish in his Monster Energy Series season debut. He was 34th at Las Vegas and is ranked 33rd in the driver championship standings. He has good history at the ISM Raceway one-miler, finishing seventh (spring) and third (fall) in the two Xfinity races last season.
Last but not least, Rick Ware Racing’s driver, Cody Ware, was 35th last week and is ranked 34th in the driver championship standings – last among the four rookies. He has a previous Monster Energy Series start at Phoenix, finishing 28th there last November.