NASCAR Pre Race Media: Top 5 Burning Questions for Sunday’s Race In Phoenix (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN)

Can Harvick Pick Up 10th Phoenix Victory?

When he won at the Phoenix Raceway in 2018, Kevin Harvick became just the ninth different driver to have won nine or more times at a single track. Now he can attempt to become just the sixth driver to win 10 or more races at a single track with a win this weekend:

Drivers with 10 or More 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)

In saying that, Harvick hasn’t exactly been like the Harvick of old at Phoenix lately. While he does have seven wins to go along with nine top two finishes in his last 18 starts, to go along with finishing worse than sixth just twice since 2012, he’s not won since the track was reconfigured. He’s 0-for-5.

This change has been his kryptonite. It’s kind of like we all saying if Kyle Larson could ever get to the Championship 4 when the final race was held at Homestead, then just give him the trophy in prerace. Well, we all thought that about Harvick when the final round was moved to Phoenix for last year and this one. Harvick, was eliminated in the Round of 8 a year ago and even if he made the final round, he said his car wasn’t good enough to compete for a championship. He finished seventh that day in November.

Four of his last five Phoenix results have seen him finish fifth or worse. 10 of his previous 13 on the old configuration saw him finish fourth or better.

Kyle Busch during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway on November 11, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona.

JGR Redemption?

Joe Gibbs Racing entered the 2020 season having won three straight races at Phoenix. Unfortunately for them, they were shutout of victory lane last year. Can they get back on the wagon on Sunday afternoon?

Their 750 horsepower package was lacking a bit a year ago, which is a big reason to why that streak ended. With Phoenix hosting the final race again this November, did JGR spend the right amount of resources this past offseason on improving this program on these tracks?

After all, we won’t be having practice this weekend, so between development and last year’s notes, did they accomplish enough to close that gap?

Denny Hamlin has three top five finishes in his last four Phoenix starts. Kyle Busch had a streak of four straight top two’s before finishing third and 11th a year ago. Martin Truex Jr. had four top six results in five tries prior to last season at Phoenix.

Can they reclaim their magic or will the new horsepower package continue to affect them at Phoenix?

Can A Sleeper Win Again?

The favorites are top heavy. I mean if I asked you to take Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick or the field, you’d most likely play it safe and grab one of them. But, don’t count out some sleepers.

Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell, William Byron and Kyle Larson have each already won this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of these guys win on Sunday either.

Ryan Blaney

Arguably the top Penske driver at this track. Blaney, may have only scored two top five finishes in 10 Phoenix starts but two of which were both third place efforts last year. He also was sixth in November to give himself three top six results in his last four Phoenix starts.

Kyle Larson 

It’s only a matter of time before Larson wins in Phoenix. The California native has four consecutive top six finishes at Phoenix including three of those in the top four. In fact, Larson has six top sixes in his last eight Phoenix tries overall. He’s coming off of a win, can he go two straight?

Aric Almirola

Since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing, Almirola has been stout in Phoenix. The Florida native has finished in the top 10 in five of his last seven starts including finishes of ninth, fourth and eighth respectively in the spring race.

Kurt Busch

Worth the gamble here. Busch, has eight top 10 finishes at Phoenix since Nov. 2014. His last six spring race finishes have seen him finish fifth, sixth, 25th, 10th, seventh and sixth respectively.

William Byron

He finished 10th and ninth respectively on this track last year. He won two weeks ago.

With four different winners to start the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, the question begs, ‘Will we see a fifth?’.

It has happened before. In the Modern Era (1972-2021) five different winners to start the season has happened 14 times (2017, 2014, 2013, 2011, 2005, 2003, 2001, 2000, 1998, 1993, 1991, 1986, 1984, 1979).

The Modern Era record of different winners to start a NASCAR Cup Series season is 10 set back in 2000. Dale Earnhardt Jr. snapped the streak winning his second race of the 2000 season at Richmond (Race No. 11).

Season Race No. Winners Track Date
2000 1 Dale Jarrett Daytona Sunday, February 20, 2000
2000 2 Bobby Labonte Rockingham Sunday, February 27, 2000
2000 3 Jeff Burton Las Vegas Sunday, March 5, 2000
2000 4 Dale Earnhardt Atlanta Sunday, March 12, 2000
2000 5 Ward Burton Darlington Sunday, March 19, 2000
2000 6 Rusty Wallace Bristol Sunday, March 26, 2000
2000 7 Dale Earnhardt Jr Texas Sunday, April 2, 2000
2000 8 Mark Martin Martinsville Sunday, April 9, 2000
2000 9 Jeff Gordon Talladega Sunday, April 16, 2000
2000 10 Jeremy Mayfield Auto Club Sunday, April 30, 2000

In the Modern Era (1972-2021), the record for the most different NASCAR Cup Series winners in a single season in its entirety is 19 set back in 2001. The series has also seen a total of 18 different winners (second-most) in a single season twice – in 2002 and 2011.

There are seven former NASCAR Cup Series Phoenix winners entered this weekend looking for their first win of the 2021 season: Kevin Harvick (nine wins), Kyle Busch (three), Denny Hamlin (two), Joey Logano (two), Ryan Newman (two), Chase Elliott (one) and Kurt Busch (one).

How Much Do You Prepare For November? How sims and lack of practice are changing setups

Phoenix is this weekend, but for the second consecutive year, this track will serve as the championship decider in November too. While we’ve only had four races to start the 2021 season in the books and Sunday’s race being the fifth, how much do you look ahead to November rather than focus too much on this weekend?

I mean, we know only four of the drivers in this weekend’s field will even be championship eligible the next time we come to Phoenix this Fall. In order to focus on the championship, you first have to make the playoffs and right now, only Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell, William Byron and Kyle Larson can say that they’re definitely going to be in them. Why throw away a shot at a win and focus on November when you don’t even know if you’ll be in a championship position come November anyways?

But, with no practice or qualifying this weekend and a return to some practice for the season finale, why not build that notebook even more just in case that it does translate over? I mean, how much did the drivers last year go to November basing setup off the March race? Do they expect to do so again this time around in 2021? Plus, how much does the track differ from the spring race and the fall race?

If that’s the case, then why not keep one eye on the track this weekend but one eye to the future for this track too? Why not try something that may only work in November? A championship can be won by decisions make for this weekend’s race.

Well, with how this new COVID era of NASCAR is going, track time is even more important.

“I think the rules have been the same for a while, and everybody has had all off-season to kind of work on our stuff and understand where they were last year and a lot of people obviously made some good decisions on how to get better,” Martin Truex Jr. said last week in Homestead. “Yeah, definitely seeing a lot of guys running up front that we don’t normally see, but I think it’s just the box that we work in is so small and the longer we have the same rules package the closer everybody is going to get.”

Michael McDowell was 0-for-357 before his win. Christopher Bell was 0-for-38. William Byron went 0-for-97 before his first win came last year at Daytona and was 1-for-110 before his Homestead victory.

“I think one of the biggest things for us is there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of development, not new chassis, new parts, new pieces,” McDowell said. “We used to fall so far behind, but now I feel like we’re able to build on what we had in the past and make our cars a little bit better each time we come to the racetrack without changing all the fundamental pieces and kind of starting over and having to re-engineer everything.

“It’s kind of simplified the process for us a little bit just to keep building on what we have and try to make it better. But what an incredible run for our Front Row team. It’s so exciting to be a part of this organization. We’re really doing it, and it’s fun to be a part of it right now, and I’m so thankful that I get to drive it.

“I didn’t do anything different as far as me. I didn’t come with a different approach of how I was going to drive it. I just did what I normally did do, and we were fast. Really thankful we had a strong car.”

How much does the lack of practice help this too? I mean, given track time, most of the big teams have the resources to alter the car to ensure that they’re firing off on all cylinders from the drop of the green flag and have plenty of data from practice that weekend to stay ahead of any changes needed. Without practice now, they don’t have that luxury.

“Last week we were on the simulator for Homestead, same thing for this week for Vegas. It’s just not correlating close enough for us,” said Kyle Busch following a third place run Sunday in Las Vegas. “If we can get that better and closer, I feel like there’s something there.

“Off on balance to start. Got way better towards the end. Still there was room for improvement there at the end. Overall our speed was a little off. We weren’t going to keep up with the 5 or the 2. Definitely on restarts we could see that I was really slow, just getting attacked on by everybody, drove backwards. Took me a while to fight my way back up front, but that was our day.

“I mean, every track is different. Every week it seems to be close or far away, whatever. It’s interesting on how we can figure it all out.

“But, yeah, I mean, last year, once we lost practice and everything like that, we knew we weren’t going to go back to practice, we would go to the simulator every single week. I spent five hours there working on things, trying to get us the right balance that I feel like on a sim and a raceable one where I feel like I can drive the car a particular way that you need to drive it in the race on there, then in real life. It’s just not quite correlating between the two.

“This week we came to the racetrack super, super tight. I mean, eight numbers tighter on the racetrack than it was in sim. Typically when you’re good in sim, you’re about two numbers loose. I don’t know. That’s a 10-number difference, right? It’s just a big deal.

“I mean, a lot of it is tire. We have to figure out the tire model, and try to make what we think is right there. I don’t know, we’ll keep working on it. That’s the only tool we’ve got.”

Daniel Suarez is feeling the same way. He’s with a new team with no past notes to base anything off of. Their setups are 100% based off of sim work. If that sim work is just the tiniest fraction off, his whole day is ruined.

“Listen, we’re still a new team,” Suarez said. “We have a lot of new people. We still dabbling in a lot of different areas on how to understand what we need, how to communicate how hard we should push the splitter.

“At this point of the season, I wish we were having at least a couple of practices. That would be the goal for our team right now because right now, the whole thing is brand new. We get to practice on the simulator, put our setup on the real car and go to a race track and hope for the best. If for some reason the simulator was off, we’re going to be off the rest of the day in the race and that’s exactly what happened in Las Vegas.

“Las Vegas I’m sure if we could make some adjustments to the car, we were going to be competitive similar like we were in Miami. But we didn’t have the chance to do that. We couldn’t change shocks or heights or stuff like that. It was one of those things that we’re just still learning. We’re building a notebook and learning from each other. I feel like my team has a lot of potential but we’re in the learning process at this point.”

Kevin Harvick, coming off of a 20th place finish last Sunday in Las Vegas agreed. He said that following a result like that, you have to look into everything to figure out what went wrong.

“You have to look at the things you did that led to this particular road,” Harvick said. “Is it your simulation? Is it the set-ups that your engineering group put in the race car? Did you do things right on the seven-post? Do you need to go into the wind tunnel?

“You have to try and tie all those pieces together. But Vegas in general, it’s a real balance between all those things from mechanical grip and aerodynamics and aerodynamic balance and bump stop loads and spring choices … It’s just a difficult race track to get all of those things right.”

Also, with a new car coming out in 2021, maybe most teams decided to forego some big money upgrades for this year and chose to refine what they previously had since the cars and setups wouldn’t change much between this year and last. That’s why we could see some wild racing then for even longer.

“It’s such a strange year. I think every company is a little different,” runner-up finisher Brad Keselowski said. “Inside every company, the teams are a little different. I think there’s a fair amount of companies that have probably punted to NextGen, which is sensible. Then there’s some companies that have really doubled down on this year’s car, their team and lineup, which makes sense, too.

“To each their own. It’s hard to tell in the first three races who’s done what. I felt like all along Vegas was the clearest indicator of what we’re going to see for a lot of the season. Both of these races, Vegas and next week in Phoenix, I think they represent what it’s going to take to win the championship, being good on tracks of these two types.

“We can tell the most from these races.

“As far as teams that might be ahead or behind others, it’s still pretty early. Certainly cause for concern if you weren’t towards the front today.”

Truex Jr. said sort of the same last week.

“The rules are the rules, and they haven’t changed in a while, and everybody is really just trying to work on the same things here each and every week,” said Truex Jr. “So it gives you time to work on your stuff and not have to really develop a lot of things. The smaller teams definitely get to catch up.”

Truex and McDowell both think that the bigger teams will eventually come on though. So far, they’re doing just that.

“We’ll see if it continues,” he continued. “I still think the strong teams will end up being the teams to beat when all is said and done, and I feel like for us in particular on the 19 we’ve been really strong all year. We’ve been really fast. We had some tough breaks in Daytona and then we were in the hunt today. We’re feeling good about things and hopefully we can just continue to find some stuff to get better and keep running up front.”

McDowell agrees.

“It definitely has closed the gap, but the best teams and the top teams will always be the top teams,” he said. “They just consistently do it just a tad better. Pit road, execution, lighter, faster, more downforce. We’ll just take it as it goes.”

Sunday showed this was a HMS-Penske-JGR fight.

WATKINS GLEN, NEW YORK – AUGUST 03: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA AUTO PARTS Chevrolet, stands in the garage with Crew Chief Alan Gustafson during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling at The Glen at Watkins Glen International on August 03, 2019 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Do New Crew Chiefs Matter More Now Than Ever Before?

Behind every good race car driver is a great crew chief. You can almost say the same thing the other way around too. See, driver-crew chief combinations matter in NASCAR. Find an all-time great driver and I’ll show you an all-time great crew chief to go with them.

Richard Petty and Dale Inman.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.

Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham.

Those are just three. Right now, we’ve seen a lot of good combinations in this era too. From Adam Stevens-Kyle Busch, to Rodney Childers-Kevin Harvick to Cole Pearn-Martin Truex Jr. Paul Wolfe-Brad Keselowski and Todd Gordon-Joey Logano were great tandems for Team Penske too. But as of late, we’ve had a lot of change on this front despite past successes from them.

See, sometimes the message becomes stale. It’s that way in stick-and-ball sports too. Every good team has a good coach. Sometimes the dynasty or a lot deep runs in the playoffs have to eventually come to an end.

That’s recently happened in NASCAR too.

Stevens and Busch split this past offseason. That’s a year after Truex and Pearn as well as Penske swapping all three driver-crew chief combos last year. William Byron is on his third crew chief in five years now as well. Christopher Bell gets a new crew chief too.

So far, all these swaps are paying off.

Byron got his Truck Series crew chief in Rudy Fugle in Cup now. They won in just their third start together two weeks ago in Homestead. Byron, looks like he’s finally turned the corner as a Cup driver.

Bell now has Adam Stevens. They won in just their second start and have two top 10’s finishes in the last three races. He also came home runner-up in the Duels in Daytona.

Last Sunday, Kyle Larson won in just his fourth career start with Cliff Daniels. Larson, has three top 10’s in four tries this season.

Truex is starting to hit the ground running after an off year with James Small. He has two straight top six results. Penske put two of their three drivers in the Championship 4 last year and after the first four races to begin in 2021, that looks to be paying off again as well.

Denny Hamlin and Chris Gabehart started out with 13 wins in 66 races, including two Daytona 500 triumphs and have now started 2021 with three top five finishes in the first four races.

Chase Elliott-Alan Gustafson and Harvick/Childers are the oldest tandems left, but these new changes are paying off. Do we see a fourth straight week with a new crew chief-driver tandem getting their first win together?

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