Mash The Gas: Phoenix Preview

NASCAR action at the Phoenix International Raceway. [Credit: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images]

NASCAR action at the Phoenix International Raceway. [Credit: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The second leg of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Western swing gets underway this weekend as the Phoenix International Raceway hosts the Camping World 500 Sunday afternoon bringing plenty of drama and excitement after a wild event in Las Vegas.

It just so happens that last week’s combatants in the Vegas post-race pit road brawl, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch finished first and second in Phoenix the last time the series raced there in November. The Phoenix International Raceway is a flatter circuit with less banking that requires a certain skill set to run well such as easing into a turn in order to build a momentous run off the corner to pass cars.

Certain drivers seem to excel at the flat tracks and while the Busch-Logano dust-up from last week will be the focus of attention, Kevin Harvick has owned the place lately, winning six out of the last nine races there. Some of the drivers participated in a Goodyear tire test at Phoenix in February and the debut of the stage racing format at the tight flat circuit should also provide some excitement.

It’s the Camping World 500 from Phoenix Sunday afternoon and here are some drivers to watch…

Kyle Larson (Dan Margetta)
I know Kevin Harvick is the going away favorite pick at Phoenix but if anyone has paid attention to Kyle Larson lately they would see in his last five races dating back to last season, he has finished third here in Phoenix, second in Homestead, passed for the lead on the white flag lap at Daytona, finished second in Atlanta, and finished second in Las Vegas. That’s an impressive string of finishes and Larson was one of the fastest drivers in the Goodyear tire test here in February. Larson’s record at Phoenix includes one top five and one top ten finish and he is listed at enticing 12-1 odds this weekend. Kyle Larson is on a roll and running up front this much just about has to end in a victory sooner or later. It might just be this weekend at Phoenix.

Kevin Harvick (John Wiedemann)
Yes, you can’t talk about Phoenix without talking about Kevin Harvick. Six wins in the last nine races. Eight wins overall at Phoenix. Won the last three spring races at Phoenix. An average finish of 2.7 in the last ten races. Led 55.5% of the laps at Phoenix since joining Stewart-Haas Racing. Throw all those together and you can see that Harvick is dominant at the flat track in the desert. But, you must also consider that Harvick started sixth, finished fourth and led no laps in the fall race last season, so he is not invincible. Coming off last week’s finish in the wall with a flat tire at Las Vegas and you know Harvick is going to arrive at Phoenix with dominance on his mind. He will be looking to match Martin Truex Jr’s performance of last weekend and hit for the cycle by winning all the stages and the race. He might even grab the pole award along the way as well.

Joey Logano (DM)
Last Fall’s Phoenix winner returns to the Arizona desert with plenty of drama following his tangle with Kyle Busch in Vegas and Joey Logano is sure to draw plenty of attention this week. Logano runs quite well at Phoenix with four top five finishes and nine top ten results to go along with his November victory. He’s finished in the top ten in six of the last seven Phoenix races and the lone result outside the top ten came after a late fuel stop while leading ruined a strong race. He’s listed at 5-1 odds and was also one of the faster drivers in the February tire test here. While Joey Logano’s aggressive driving approach has ruffled many feathers the last few years he has been one of the winningest drivers over the last three seasons. Joey Logano should be one of the drivers to beat on Sunday at Phoenix.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (JW)
So far, good results have evaded Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2017. Last weekend at Las Vegas was his best finish when he crossed the line in 16th. But, it is still early and Junior is still coming back from missing half a season with concussion issues. This weekend might be the best to see where Earnhardt is in his comeback as Phoenix has been a good solid track for him. Junior finished fifth in this race last season and the team with driver Alex Bowman scored the pole and led 194 laps prior to finishing sixth in the 2016 fall race. Earnhardt has three wins at the track with his most recent victory in the 2015 fall race. Over his last seven races at Phoenix, Earnhardt has finished in the top five in five of those events and finishing eighth and getting in an accident in the other two. This will be an interesting weekend for Earnhardt and the team and he will be one to watch.

Kyle Busch (DM)
It just so happens Joey Logano’s main rival this week, Kyle Busch also has had a strong Phoenix record of late having finished fourth, fourth, and second in his last three races here. Busch comes into Phoenix at 6-1 odds and has a victory here to go along with six top five finishes and fifteen top ten results. He also comes into Phoenix with a lot of determination after being knocked out of top five result in the final turn last week. A Kyle Busch-Joey Logano shootout at Phoenix following their brawl at Vegas would be a dream come true for NASCAR, the fans, and quite possibly the driver running third. It could very well happen Sunday and Kyle Busch will most certainly be in the middle of the action.

Denny Hamlin (JW)
If you are looking for Denny Hamlin in the standings, you have to look almost halfway down the list. While the standings don’t really matter to someone like Hamlin, you know he’s going to get a win an make the playoffs, he isn’t in a spot you would expect him to be. A sixth place finish last weekend, his first top ten, has Hamlin headed in the right direction. In 23 races at Phoenix, Hamlin has a victory, ten top five and thirteen top ten finishes with an average of 10.9, fourth best in the series. Hamlin should, along with his Toyota teammates, make a mark this weekend at Phoenix and should be amongst the challengers at the end of each stage.

Chase Elliott (DM)
Chase Elliott has gotten off to a tremendous start in 2017 with two top five finishes in the first three races including a strong third place last weekend in Las Vegas. In his rookie season last year, Elliott finished in the top ten in both Phoenix races and he enters this weekend’s events at 10-1 odds to win. Elliott also fared well at Phoenix in his NASCAR Xfinity Series starts and he owns the third highest driver rating at the flat oval. That first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory remains firmly in site and Chase Elliott has to be considered a contender each and every week. Don’t count him out in the Camping World 500 at Phoenix on Sunday.

Ryan Blaney (JW)
Who will win next? That is the question posed to all the young guns in the series right now. Kyle Larson pulled off his first victory last season and was the first among the new era of young drivers. Another guy at the front of the pack along with Larson and Chase Elliott is Ryan Blaney driving for Wood Brothers Racing. Their alliance to Team Penske and the talents of Blaney have brought the legendary team back to the forefront and many believe that Blaney is the next young gun to find victory lane. That could happen this weekend as Blaney has produced at the track immediately with two top ten finishes in his first two races there last season. Blaney has been running well in this early season as well with two top tens, one being a top five, in the opening three races. Blaney will face tough competition, mostly from his Ford teammates, for that prime real estate in victory lane but I believe he is up to the challenge.

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