NASCAR Cup Series News & Notes – Phoenix Raceway

Next Race: FanShield 500
The Place: Phoenix Raceway
The Date: Sunday, March 8
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 312 miles/500 kilometers (312 laps)
Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 75), Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 190),
Final Stage (Ends on Lap 312)
2019 Race Winner: Kyle Busch

Phoenix might be the ‘jewel in the desert’ for Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch

For the second consecutive week, Kyle Busch shows up at a NASCAR Cup Series track as the defending race winner, and though the Joe Gibbs Racing driver is till winless this season, he arrives at Phoenix Raceway for Sunday’s FanShield 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) looking to continue a positive upswing after a rough couple early season outings.

The reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion has finished either first or second in the last four races at the Phoenix one-miler, and this weekend, he is the defending winner of both the weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series and the NASCAR Xfinity Series races.

Busch, driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota enters Sunday’s race ranked 19th in the championship standings, throwing out the 2015 season when he was injured, this is the lowest he’s been after the first three races of the season since his 2005 rookie campaign (22nd after first three races). But Phoenix certainly presents an optimum opportunity to reestablish his championship game.

Busch has won two of the three races since the one-mile Phoenix track was “re-envisioned” with a facelift and new configuration in late 2018. In total he has made 29 series starts at Phoenix posting three wins (2005, 2018, 2019), 11 top fives and 21 top 10s. His 1,190 laps led is second only to nine-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick’s 1,595 laps out front.

Last spring, Busch led 177 of 312 laps en route to a healthy 1.259-second win over JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. His win a day earlier in the Xfinity Series race marked the largest margin of victory in track history – 3.025-seconds ahead of Truex’s younger brother, Ryan Truex.

Busch was optimistic his first top-10 finish of the season last week at California was a positive sign of better days ahead.

“Guys are doing all they can, I know along with everybody at TRD (Toyota Racing Development),’’ Busch said Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. “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 a good car today.’’

Ryan Blaney has been close but still searching for first win of the season

Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney heads to Phoenix Raceway still atop the NASCAR Cup series championship standings, now 11 points up on his teammate Joey Logano in second. He’s eager to fortify that points lead with a race winner’s trophy. And he’s been so close.

The driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford had to pit from second place with only three laps remaining in Sunday’s race in California last weekend; he ultimately finished 19th. Dating back to last season at Talladega he has made eight starts since his last victory.

But he can take some solace in his season’s early work. He is the only driver to lead laps in every race – four in the Daytona 500, 19 at Las Vegas and 54 at California – for a total of 77 laps out front (fifth-most this season). Plus, he leads the series in average running position this season with a 6.3.

And as these performances would indicate, Blaney is capable of running up front and playing into the victory. He told reporters prior to Sunday’s race that there is a lot to be gained by the strong start and that he doesn’t hang onto disappointments.

“About 10 minutes,’’ Blaney said of pondering the tough luck finish in the season’s second race at Las Vegas. He pitted from the race lead during the final caution period and was able to race back to 11thHis Team Penske teammate Joey Logano did not pit and went on to win the race.

But with the points lead and four top-10 finishes in eight previous starts at this week’s Phoenix Raceway, Blaney is ready for the race in the desert. He scored back-to-back third-place finishes in both Phoenix races last year and he’s a two-time Phoenix pole winner, out-qualifying the field in the 2017 Playoff race and again in this race last spring.

Like so many of his competitors, Blaney is eager to get some laps in at Phoenix, which will now – for the first time – host the series championship race on Nov. 8.

“It is obviously a huge race,’’ Blaney said of this weekend’s FanShield 500. “Usually you only go to [the previous championship venue] Homestead once, so you don’t have a chance to kind of get a race under your belt there in the spring.

“It is a really important race for multiple reasons, the championship and the low downforce stuff,’’ he added. “It is really important to get some good notes from there and hopefully make it back there for the championship.’’

Harvick: The Phoenix of Phoenix

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick holds the special distinction of being his generation’s most dominant driver at this week’s Phoenix Raceway. With an unequalled nine victories on the desert one-miler – including an unprecedented four straight from 2013-‘15 – Harvick has led the most laps (1,595) and in the last 16 Phoenix races, only finished outside the top-10 one time. He hasn’t finished worse than ninth since 2013. He is the only driver in series history to win consecutive races here, multiple times.

The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has seven of his nine victories and a pair of runner-up finishes in just the last 15 races – essentially every other race he’s won or finished second in that time.

His 110.5 driver rating is understandably tops among the competition and he is averaging a 9.2 finish – the only driver in the Top 16 in the driver standings with an average finish inside the top 10. His Loop Data stats are quite impressive as well, his average running position (8.418), laps in the top 15 (7,814) are also best in the field this weekend.

In the three races since the track’s repave in 2018, however, Harvick has two fifth-place finishes and a ninth-place showing and has led 73 laps (all in in the 2018 Playoff race). Very uncharacteristically, the 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion has not led a lap in the last two Phoenix races.

Harvick shows up this weekend the only driver in the series to have earned top-10 finishes in the opening three races of 2020. He is fourth in the driver standings and trails points leader Ryan Blaney by 12 markers following California.

“I felt like last year, with that particular rules package, we definitely weren’t as good as we had been in the past,’’ Harvick said, suggesting it was the different car style not the change in Phoenix layout that may have affected recent performances.

“I think with the 2018 package (used now), I think we were in the game. It’s been a great race track for us as we’ve gone through the years and a place that we go to expect a win. And I don’t see that any different, no matter what the rules package is, the expectations from our side are the same and that’s to go there and have a chance to win. We didn’t do that last year, but the expectations didn’t change.’’



Hendrick Motorsports resurgence

If there was one team mighty happy to head West, it was probably Hendrick Motorsports. Alex Bowman’s statement-making victory last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway led the best full-team showing for the organization of the year. He led 110 of the 200 laps en route to his second career win.

Chase Elliott (fourth) and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson (seventh) also had top 10 efforts in California and the team’s youngest member, 22-year-old William Byron, earned his first top 20 of the season with a 15th-place finish.

The victory propelled Bowman to a career best early season position in the standings. He’s now in third place, 12 points behind leader Ryan Blaney. Johnson, who is competing in his final fulltime season, is fifth in the driver standings, only 16 points behind Blaney. Elliott is a single-point behind Johnson in sixth place. And Byron has climbed back into 20th in the standings.

The positive momentum seems likely to continue on the final stop of NASCAR’s western swing, the one-mile Phoenix Raceway site of this week’s FanShield 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, leads the team with four wins and three poles on the Phoenix oval. His 15 top fives and 21 top 10s – including three runner-up finishes are marks second only to the track’s all-time best Kevin Harvick. Johnson’s driver rating 105.2 is second best in the field this week (to Harvick’s 110.5) as is his average finish (10.3). Johnson was eighth in this race last year.

Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has an impressive four top-10 finishes in eight starts. Twice he finished top five, including a career best effort of runner-up in the 2017 Playoff race. He was 14th in this race last year.

Tucson-native Alex Bowman, driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, won the pole position for the 2016 Playoff race – filling in for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. His sixth-place finish and 194 laps led in that race are a personal high at his home state track. He’s had a rough last few outings, getting collected in crashes in two of the last three races. He took a DNF in this race last year, finishing 35th after being in an accident.

Byron, the youngest of the team and driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has one top-10 finish in four previous starts at Phoenix – earning a ninth place in the 2018 Playoff race. His 15 laps led in his very first NASCAR Cup Series try on the desert mile are his only laps out front to date.

“I think it’s really important just to not be embarrassed like we were last time there,’’ Bowman’s crew chief Greg Ives said about Phoenix. “We kind of had a stranglehold on that place for a while, winning with Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and then almost winning with Alex and having a lot of confidence going to that track and then to kind of fall flat on your face is not a really good feeling, especially when I know it’s his hometown.

“I know we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to run well there, and I don’t care if it’s the championship race or not, I want to win at any place we go and not be embarrassed.’’

Joe Gibbs Racing is shifting gears

Three races into the 2020 season and last year’s dominant Joe Gibbs Racing team (JGR) is still working to capture some of that incredible mojo that resulted in a modern-day NASCAR Cup Series record 19 victories for the four-driver team.

JGR is actually on a very similar pace to 2019. Denny Hamlin has matched his Daytona 500 victory and Kyle Busch heads to Phoenix Raceway as defending winner. The big “if” is whether the organization can equal the torrid early season pace it set a year ago.

By the 10th race of the 2019 schedule, Joe Gibbs Racing drivers had already hoisted six trophies. Hamlin won at Daytona and then Texas. Busch won at Phoenix, California and Bristol and Martin Truex Jr. earned the first of his season best seven wins at Richmond.

This year, the pace has felt a little slower. Hamlin leads the team with a seventh place position in the driver standings with the Daytona victory and a sixth-place finish at Auto Club Speedway over the weekend. Truex is ranked 13th and has yet to earn a top 10. His best showing is 14th at California.

Jones has only one top-10 finish and is ranked 18th in the driver standings, 55 points behind the leader Ryan Blaney. And Busch, the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion just broke into the top 20 of the standings – with a runner-up finish at California; his only top 10 of the year. He’s ranked 19th and trails Blaney by 57 points.

“These things, they’re very picky and very tricky and things change really quick,’’ Truex said last week of his team’s pace. “Guys are obviously doing a good job. Had a really strong car in Vegas last week, I was really happy with that. Felt like we were going to be in position to have a shot at winning there. Of course we had our issues. That’s part of the deal.’’

Truex said he was encouraged by the new technical rules package for Phoenix, likening it to the 2018 cars and remained optimistic about his chances this week.

“It’s been kind of a decent track for us over the years,’’ Truex said. “I felt like, since the repave, it’s taken a little bit for us to get our arms around it. I feel like we’re getting better there and that’s a good thing.

“We’ve had some good runs there the last couple years. Last fall, I felt like we were about the closest we’ve been in a few years at least to having a shot. With the new rules going back a few years, we ran well there in 2018, so hopefully we can expand on that and find some more speed there.”

Sunoco Rookie Report: Reddick seizes rookie standings lead

NCS Sunoco Rookie of the Year Standings
Rookies Points
Tyler Reddick 55
John H. Nemechek 51
Cole Custer 44
Brennan Poole 34
Christopher Bell 13
Quin Houff 8

Last week in California, two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick tied fellow Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender John Hunter Nemechek’s season-high water mark, finishing 11th. And in the process took the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings lead by just four points. In fact, three rookies earned top-25 finishes last Sunday – California’s Cole Custer was 18th and Nemechek was 25th.

Twice now (at Las Vegas and at Auto Club Speedway) Reddick, driver of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, has been the top finishing rookie.

It has been an adjustment for this class of rookies as none of the first-year drivers are ranked among the NASCAR Cup Series top 20 in the series driver standings three races in, but Reddick leads them, ranked 23rd with a four-point edge on Front Row Motorsport’s driver John Hunter Nemechek in 24th.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer is 26th in the standings just 11 points behind Reddick, and Premium Motorsport’s Brennan Poole, driver of the No. 15 Chevrolet, is 29th in the driver standings – 10 points behind Custer.

Christopher Bell, driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota, is ranked 32nd in the series driver standings, 32 points behind rookie standings leader Tyler Reddick. Quin Houff rounds out the rookie standings in sixth and is ranked 34th in the overall driver standings, 47 points back from Reddick.

The biggest surprise thus far has been Bell’s slow start, but it all could turn around this weekend at Phoenix Raceway. He won a NASCAR Xfinity Series race there in 2018. He’s led 259 laps in the last four races there and swept the pole position at the two races there last year in the Xfinity Series.

But Reddick will be hard to catch as the Californian has four top-10 finishes in five NASCAR Xfinity Series Phoenix starts with a best showing of third – in both of the 2019 races. Custer was runner-up in the 2019 Xfinity Playoff race and has finished top-10 in his last five races at the track.

Nemechek is a perfect three-for-three in top-10 Xfinity Series finishes at Phoenix. He won the pole position in his first start in 2018 and was a career best fourth in his last race there – last November. Made his NASCAR Cup Series debut at Phoenix last November and finished 27th.

Houff actually made his first NASCAR Cup Series start at Phoenix last March, finishing 30th. He was 29th in the November Xfinity Series race there.

Reddick, Custer, Poole, and Bell will all be making their series track debuts this weekend at Phoenix.

Parade Laps: Insights ahead of this week’s driver media rotations

Six drivers from the NASCAR Cup Series – Germain Racing’s Ty Dillon, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Clint Bowyer, Leavine Family Racing’s Christopher Bell, Premium Motorsport’s Brennan Poole, Roush Fenway Racing’s Chris Buescher and Richard Petty Motorsport’s Bubba Wallace will be participating in this week’s media rotations at Phoenix Raceway in advance of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series’ FanShield 500 (3:30 p.m., ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at 2:45-3:!5 p.m. (local time) in the Drivers Meeting Room.

Ty Dillon (No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet), 28, of Lewisville, N.C., has already put a top-10 on his season scoreboard with a 10th-place finish at Las Vegas two weeks ago. The driver of the No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet would love to make that happen again on the Phoenix Raceway one-miler, where he posted a best finish of 11th in the 2017 Playoff race. Last year, Dillon earned finishes of 15th and 20th in the two Phoenix races. And he does bring an encouraging history to Sunday’s race. He earned seven top-10 finishes while competing in the Xfinity Series at Phoenix – including a best ever showing at the track of fourth place in 2014.

Clint Bowyer (No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford), 40, of Emporia, Kansas, is eager to restore his early season trajectory after a tire issue gave him problems midway through last Sunday’s race in California. He won the pole position for the event, but the tire issue relegated him to a 23rd-place finish and dropped him to 16th in the season driver standings after encouraging early race finishes of sixth (at Daytona) and 12th (Las Vegas). The driver of the No. 14 Ford has never won in 29 previous starts on the Phoenix mile, but has a pair of top five efforts highlighted by a runner-up finish in 2008. He’s led only one lap in the last 27 races but earned finishes of 11th and eighth at the track last season.

Christopher Bell (No.95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota), 25, of Norman, Oklahoma, is certainly looking to get his Sunoco Rookie of the Year season back on track this week at a facility he has excelled on previously. Bell’s best finish this year in the No. 95 Toyota is 21st in the Daytona 500 season-opener and he arrives in Phoenix ranked 32nd in the series driver standings and fifth in the Sunoco Rookie standings (out of six). This desert one-miler, however, has been good to Bell in the past. He won a 2018 NASCAR Xfinity Series race here leading a dominating 94 of 200 laps. He won the pole position for both of the 2019 Xfinity Series races and has led 259 laps in the last four Xfinity Series races. This will be his NASCAR Cup Series track debut this weekend.

Brennan Poole (No. 15 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet), 28, of The Woodlands, Texas, is coming off a fine showing in the Daytona 500 (16th-place finish) for his No. 15 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet team. He’s ranked 29th in the NASCAR Cup Series driver standings and fourth in the rookie points heading to Phoenix where he has a pair of top-10 efforts in five previous NASCAR Xfinity Series races – eighth in 2017 and 10th in 2016. This weekend marks his NASCAR Cup Series debut on the Phoenix flat track.

Chris Buescher (No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford), 27, of Prosper, Texas, is turning in a fine early effort in the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 Ford – his first NASCAR Cup Series season with the team with whom he won the 2015 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship. In eight career Cup Series starts at Phoenix, Buescher’s best result is a 16thplace finish – a mark he doubled in the two 2019 races. His third-place showing in the season-opening Daytona 500 is already half as many total top-five finishes he’s ever had in a single NASCAR Cup Series season.

Bubba Wallace (No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet), 26, of Mobile, Alabama, is hoping to continue his strong season start in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet. A solid 15th-place finish opened the season at Daytona, and he answered with a sixth-place run at Las Vegas (his best ever NASCAR Cup Series finish at the track) and then a 27th at California last weekend. He’s ranked 17th in the championship – only one point behind 16th place Clint Bowyer in the final Playoff transfer spot. Wallace has one top-10 finish in four NASCAR Cup Series starts at Phoenix – a 10th in 2018 Playoff race. He has two top-10 finishes in the Xfinity Series and another in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.

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