Drivers put emphasis on November with Phoenix race in March

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Holly Cain
·5 min read
Drivers put emphasis on November with Phoenix race in March
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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 NASCAR Playoffs.

RELATED: Starting lineup for Sunday | Odds: Chase Elliott favored to win Phoenix

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 NASCAR Playoffs. That leaves the more typical headline makers such as Hamlin, an seven-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 in early 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 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 628 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.”