Race 2 of “NASCAR Goes West,” leaving the Diamond in the Desert and heading down south to Avondale, AZ. The newly named ISM Raceway — more widely known as Phoenix International Raceway (and with some other names more recently) — is the first 1.0-mile track on the schedule after a pair of intermediates. We’ll see how the boys handle things on a smaller scale at this week’s TicketGuardian 500. (And that’s 500 kilometers this time, not miles.)
Here’s what to look for:
–Martin Truex Jr. was 6th fastest in each of the first two rounds of qualifying, but leapt to the top of the charts in the final — he’ll work on finishing there as well. Looking to defend his title, a win here tomorrow would punch his ticket to the playoffs. Truex placed 11th here last Spring, and 3rd in the Fall.
–Kyle Larson led the first practice on Friday, and looked to have things well in hand for qualifying. He ended up 2nd, a position he’s prepared to start from. Rolling off 4th in 2017, he came home 2nd. The Fall race told a different story; 3rd to 40th in 104 (of 312) laps.
-Monster Energy NASCAR Cup points leader Kevin Harvick has logged two dominating wins to start the season, the most recent coming with a heap of penalties. A post-race rear-window infraction cost his team 7 playoff points and 20 regular season points. In addition, crew chief Rodney Childers‘ pocket is $50,000 lighter, and car chief Robert “Cheddar” Smith gets to watch the race from home for two weeks. The #4 team is already locked into the playoffs by virtue of the Atlanta win, so the season isn’t a lost cause in that department. Harvick made a point to blame social media as the dramatic source for these penalties, likening it to the way that golf has seen similar treatment with TV viewers emailing officials about things they’ve seen. Beyond all that, “Happy” is ecstatic to be here: 9.7 average finish, 8 wins, and a 6th and 5th in 2017. If there was ever a track for he and his team to serve a penalty at without cause for concern, it is this one.
–Ryan Newman won last year, leading only 6 laps in his lone victory of the season. Phoenix is not one of his best venues by average (17.2), but he boasts 10 Top 5s here, the most of any track he’s traveled. Newman starts 13th on Sunday.
-Filling in for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2016, Alex Bowman climbed behind the wheel of the #88 Chevy for a spell. In the penultimate race of the season, the then-23-year-old got the first pole of his young career. He rode that to a 6th place finish in what would be the last time he saw Phoenix in a Cup car. Making two starts in the Xfinity series in 2017, one of those was once again Phoenix; he started 5th and finished 8th. Two Top 10s in his last two races here across multiple series, and he starts 4th on Sunday. The math isn’t difficult, and his ability to stay up front shouldn’t be either. But as they say: “that’s why they play the games.” We’ll see what adds up tomorrow.
Coverage of the race starts on FOX at 3:30pm, green flag scheduled for 3:44pm.