Martin Truex Jr. started off Sunday’s Instacart 500 not in a very good position. He was losing spots quickly and even got into the wall at one point in his No. 19 Toyota at the Phoenix Raceway. The team elected to make major changes between his car last year and this since they weren’t a top five car a year ago. It didn’t start off on the right footing.
But, they were able to get it all dialed in as the race went on though.
Truex, faded to 17th in Stage 1 and they came around during the second stage. He came all the way up to finish second. He’d in fact take over the lead on Lap 223 and lead all but 25 laps the rest of the way en route to his 28th career Cup Series victory including his first in 31 starts at Phoenix.
“Well, that run right after that, it still wasn’t great,” Truex said after the first round of changes on Sunday. “It was the next pit stop, more adjustments on the car, that it felt like now we’ve got something. I didn’t really know it was that good until I got up. We got deep into that long run, I think I got up to about fifth, and I could see the next couple guys in front of me, I’m like, Dang, we came from like 17th or 18th on that restart. That’s when I knew it was pretty good.”
Truex, passed Joey Logano for the lead on the final restart and never looked back to cruise to his fifth top six in his last eight starts on the 1-mile Arizona oval to end a 29 race winless streak.
Logano, had to settle for second in his No. 22 Ford to earn his second runner-up finish in the last four weeks. He led a race-high 143 laps but says a vibration towards the end and Truex’s speed were the reason as to why he wasn’t the one celebrating in victory lane for a second straight Spring race in Phoenix.
Denny Hamlin was third in his No. 11 Toyota for his fourth top five in five races run in 2021. He’s also had a top five in four of his last five Phoenix starts too.
Brad Keselowski finished fourth in his No. 2Ford for his third top five in his last four starts on the season while Chase Elliott rounded out the top five in his No. 9 Chevrolet.
The only bad thing to come out of Truex’s win on Sunday is that the driver to win the spring race in Phoenix has only went on to win the series championship just three times – Terry Labonte (1984), Dale Earnhardt (1990) and Jeff Gordon (1995).
Despite that, Truex says that the win on Sunday was a huge boost in confidence though.
“Huge boost. Huge confidence,” Truex said. “I’ll be honest with you, if we would have come here last year in the final four, I would have been not very confident. Last year we struggled here for some reason. It’s never been our greatest track, I’ll say that. It’s always been just okay. I’ve never come here with a really warm, fuzzy feeling that we’re going to go there and win, we’re going to go there and be really, really strong and lead laps.
“That was definitely a nice surprise today. Really just hats off to all the guys for the hard work. Everybody that builds the cars, puts in all the effort back at JGR, Toyota.
“We took a huge swing at the car for this race. We knew what we’ve been doing here in the past two races wasn’t good. Car didn’t do anything I needed it to do. We just went to work on it. James and the guys did an awesome job with that. Really happy about it.”
AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 14: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 14, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
How Truex Won
Joey Logano led a race-high 143 laps and was first off pit road on Lap 284. He in fact passed his Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski on Lap 273 and looked like he’d be the one to beat for a second straight year in the spring Phoenix race. While a caution came out for Kyle Busch and Ross Chastain on Lap 281, even the pit stop couldn’t slow Logano down.
The thing is, Martin Truex Jr. was just that much better and was going to restart second alongside of Logano. Some questioned why Logano chose the bottom lane for that final restart, but he said that he was batting 100% in that decision of the low line to restart from though.
“I chose the bottom because I’ve chose the bottom every time I’ve been the leader, and it’s worked every single time,” Logano said. “I was batting a thousand on the bottom the last, I don’t know, two years here. I was kind of actually surprised that Truex was still out there. Felt like I created enough distance down there on the bottom shortcut in the dogleg that typically I can have someone at my quarter to where I can control them.
“Looked down, gosh, he’s still door-to-door with me. Their car accelerated really well, surprisingly well. Didn’t see that one coming.”
Truex, also said that he’s not shocked Logano chose that lane either. He would have done the same.
“I was not surprised he chose the bottom because he had chose the bottom on every restart and got the lead,” he said. “If I was the leader, I probably would have chose the bottom as well.”
Truex noted that generally on new tires for a lap or two, the bottom is a little bit faster. It just happened that he felt like he got a really good jump, side-by-side with Logano going into one.
“I think he got tight or something,” Truex continued. “He ran way up the racetrack. I was turning kind of to the right, letting my car go up the hill as well, to keep him from running into the left side of me.
“I’m guessing he just drove in, got tight. We both ended up pretty high on the track. When that happened, I was able to grab the PJ1 with my right sides and get the thing turned, get on the gas pretty early. That’s really what made the difference.
“I think if he wrapped the bottom, he might have been able to clear me. I’m not sure what happened, if he just got tight or overdrove the entry.”
Logano, said that even if he held Truex off on that restart, he didn’t feel like his No. 22 Ford would remain in the lead for much longer anyways.
“They just had a fast car all the way through,” said Logano of Truex. “They had a fast car from the get-go. Once they tuned it in the end of the second stage, they were lights out.
“To be honest with you, I’m not sure even if we got in front of him in that last restart, I’m not sure I’d have been able to hold him off or not. Would have been a hell of a battle. He probably would have gotten me eventually.”
Truex would lead the final 25 laps en route to the win as he crossed the finish line by 1.698 seconds ahead of Logano.
“Just got a good jump, was able to stay side-by-side with him getting into turn one,” Truex said of that final restart. “That’s really the key. Then he drove into one and kind of slid up, slid us both up the hill. Once that happened, I was able to grab the PJ1, get a good run off.
“If he would have drove in, maybe wrapped the bottom better, maybe he would have cleared me. Like I said, he drove in deep, I drove in deeper. We both slid up the track. That’s usually the way it goes. Luckily I drove in deeper than he did.”
Truex, led 64 of the final 89 laps, so his car came around as the race went on while Logano’s fell off a bit due to a weird vibration that came and went.
While it has been 29 races since he last won, Truex noted that it wasn’t necessarily a win that he needed, it was just that they were very hungry for it.
“We really wanted it, obviously,” he said. “We worked really hard. We’ve got a great team. It seemed like for whatever reason, it was always little things that were biting us. We were always so close, always second or third. I don’t know how many times we’ve been second, third, fourth, top five since we won last year at Martinsville. It’s been a bunch.
“It’s like, Man, what do we have to do to turn it around so it’s our day? I think that’s probably what you see, a little bit of relief and excitement for how hard the guys have really worked to put together all the details and make it happen.
“We’ve got a great bunch. I’ve said that from day one. James is doing a great job. Hopefully we can use this momentum and just continue to do what we need to do.”
Truex, said that he never doubted himself nor this team during this winless drought.
“I’ve been a whole lot longer than that in my career,” he noted on winless streaks. “I don’t look at those numbers. I don’t really pay attention to it.”
He said the reason for that was that while they’ve not won since last June they’ve also been running strong too though.
“Towards the end of last year, the Playoffs came around, we really performed well, did a lot of good things,” Truex continued. “Had a lot of tough breaks, didn’t have a lot to show for it. That’s just fuel, fuel for the fire in the off-season to work harder and make sure we can do what we need to do.
“Yeah, 29 is nothing. I never even thought about it, to be honest. We’ve been capable of winning a lot of races between the last one and the one today. These races are really hard to win. That’s really all I can say about it.
“Thankful for today. We’ll celebrate and enjoy this one, get back to work tomorrow for next weekend.
“You never know when your last one is going to be, you’ve got to enjoy them all. I’m certainly really proud of this one.”
AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 14: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 14, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Usual Suspects Back Again
Following the first three races to the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, it appeared that we’d be set for such an unpredictable year. Not only did we have Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell and William, Byron winning races, we saw some different drivers than we’re accustomed to seeing up front too. But, with Vegas last week and Phoenix this one, it now appears that the big teams have found their ways back up front.
Nine of the top 10 finishers last Sunday in Las Vegas belonged to Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. This week in Phoenix, it was the same three teams dominating again.
They took eight of the top nine spots in Stage 1 including 1-2-3-4-5-6 and six of the top seven in Stage 2 including 1-2-3-4-5. In the end, it was 1-2-3-4-5 and nine of the top 10 overall again.
As to why the parity isn’t as much on these tracks, Joey Logano had a theory on why.
“I think the 750 package is harder to drive,” he said bluntly. “I think experience probably comes out more. There’s different techniques that I think the experienced guys have learned over the years racing cars that don’t have much downforce, a lot of horsepower.
“When you come to a short track, there’s comers and goers. Knowing how to go fast on a short run versus a long run, Denny (Hamlin) is probably one of the best at figuring that balance out. I think probably that experience behind the wheel helps, kind of knowing what you need in your race car to go as fast as possible.
“Probably experience comes into play more just because it’s something we’ve done a lot the last forever.”
“I mean, most of the experienced guys, the guys that have been around for four-plus years, ran this whole package in 2017,” said Sunday’s third place finisher. “If you have less experience than that, this is kind of a new thing for you, other than we cut the spoilers off on the short track last year.
“I agree with Joey. You kind of build a notebook on it. You understand how to manipulate the car when it’s not handling perfectly. You can move your line around and change some things. That’s stuff that takes experience.
“I think experience in this sport is just so underrated simply because you see so many things. We’ve all been through tire changes, car changes, aerodynamic changes, track changes, that we’re ahead of the game, I guess you could say. Especially now that we have no practice, I mean, it lends itself even more to experience.
“Definitely agree with that take.”
JGR Cars Show Improvement On 750 Horsepower Package
It’s early, but after the first five races, Joe Gibbs Racing has showed their promise on the 750 horsepower package. We’ve had two races with it and JGR has won both of them. Christopher Bell won on the Daytona road course and Denny Hamlin was third to give JGR two cars in the top three that day. In Phoenix, Martin Truex Jr. won and Hamlin was third again for JGR to take two of the top three spots. Christopher Bell’s ninth place result put three JGR cars in the top 10 at the end of the day and gives Hamlin some confidence in this horsepower package for them now.
See, they struggled on it a year ago and so far out of the gates in 2021, their improvement this offseason on this package is showing.
“I think today was important because we knew at the end of last year we needed to work on our short track program,” Truex Jr. said following his win. “I think there was a lot of effort focused on that in the off-season. Coming here, I don’t know that we were real sure exactly how it was going to look. Who is going to be strong? Are we going to be strong?
“I think to answer some of those questions is good, and to have a good, strong base is good, something we can build on. A lot more short tracks coming up this year and a lot of races with this particular package this year, including road courses. It’s an important one. It’s good to have a good day starting the first one off.
“You still continue to work and try to find things because everybody else is.”
While Hamlin didn’t win, he was also happy to see the progress made this past offseason.
“I mean, the 19 has had a good car. Their short track program, I think they stand out to me as one of our best short track teams at JGR. I mean, it was encouraging for me that we did run in the top five all day,” Hamlin said. “The 19 ran in the top five all day. We were not good on the short tracks last year. In 2019 I think our worst finish in the 11 on a short track was fourth, maybe fifth. We had all top fives at every short track.
“Last year, if we could run sixth or seventh, it was probably a decent day for us. Hopefully this is a sign that we kind of worked on the right things and are heading in the right direction.
“But good for him for winning. I wish it was me.”
Hendrick Cars Overcome What Could Have Been Tough Days Via Inspections, Speeding Penalties
Hendrick Motorsports appears to be back. They won two of the five races this season and if you go back to Martinsville last November, they have won four of the last seven races overall. But, they could have been in store for a rough day though at the start of Sunday’s race.
3 of the 4 drivers were sent to the back at the start due to Kyle Larson and William Byron’s cars failing pre race inspection twice on Saturday. Then on Sunday, Chase Elliott joined them with his car having an unapproved adjustment prior to the race themselves.
Despite that, they still put all three of their cars in the top 10 when it was all said and done on Sunday afternoon.
Alex Bowman crashed on Lap 45 to what could have put this race even worse, but he still rebounded for a top 20 in 13th.
Byron jumped up to eighth in Stage 1, seventh in Stage 2 and finished eighth in his No. 24 Chevrolet for his third straight top 10 finish on the season and third consecutive top 10 result at Phoenix too.
Defending series champion Elliott made his way up to fifth by the end of Stage 1, ninth at the end of Stage 2 and brought his No. 9 Chevrolet home in fifth for his first top 10 result on the season since his runner-up in the Daytona 500. It was also his third straight top 10 at Phoenix as well.
Larson overcame multiple speeding penalties to score another top 10 in his No. 5 Chevrolet for his fourth top 10 in five tries on the season.
Harvick Still Shutout In Phoenix Configuration
Kevin Harvick has four top 10 finishes in five races during the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. While you could say that would be enough to make him a championship threat, Harvick just hasn’t had the overall speed to the rest of the favorites still thus far. He’s led just 17 total laps all year at that too.
With the championship round being in Phoenix, Harvick just didn’t show enough to me on Sunday despite scoring a top 10, to pick him as a favorite to not only be back to Phoenix in the Fall vying for a championship, but also being the one to beat among the four that are there too.
While Harvick has nine career wins at Phoenix, none have come since the track was reconfigured between races in 2018.
He won the race on the old configuration in March 2018 but when they came back that November, things were different. He’s finished fifth, ninth, fifth, second, seventh and now eighth respectively in that span.
While those are great results, he actually was way better on the previous layout.
Harvick, had eight top two finishes in his previous 11 races before the configuration currently in place began. In, fact, from March 2012 through March 2018 (13 races), he finished worse than sixth just once with nine top two’s. He’s only had one top two in the last six races on this configuration and failed to lead a lap for two straight races now and four of the last five. He’s not led a lap in seven of the last 10 at Phoenix overall too.
Championship Contenders? Usual suspects for Phoenix up front, favorites on the season now standing out
While we’ve had five races and produced five different winners, it’s clear now that some championship contenders are starting to take shape. With Phoenix being the championship deciding race, the ones that looked good on Sunday have a great shot of doing so when we come back in November.
Last year’s Championship 4 drivers finished 1st (Logano), 4th (Hamlin), 7th (Elliott) and 12th (Keselowski) in the spring race. They’d go 1-2-3-4 in the Fall.
This year, the best drivers on Sunday were the ones that finished up front. While that sounds cliché, it’s clear that we didn’t have any fluke problems alter the ending which allowed the best of the best all day to finish there.
The top guys at Phoenix were the top guys again. Truex Jr. earned his fifth top six result in his last eight Phoenix tries. Logano produced his fifth straight top 10 at Phoenix including three straight in the top three. Hamlin finished in the top five for his fourth time in the last five races. Keselowski now has three top 10’s over his last four including two straight top fives. Elliott has three straight top sevens, Harvick has 16 consecutive top 10’s, Larson has five straight top sevens and Byron has three straight top 10’s. The best at Phoenix were the best again.
That bodes well for them if any of these guys can be in the Championship 4 in November.
In terms of the season, Hamlin has a top five in four of five races this season. Truex, has three consecutive top six results including two of which in the top three. Keselowski has three top fives in his last four. Logano, has three top 10’s in his last four including two of which being runner-ups. Larson has three straight top sevens and a top 10 in all but one race run himself.
These to me are your top five right now.
A sleeper is Kevin Harvick who has four top 10’s in five races but just 17 laps led. William Byron has three consecutive top eight results in his No. 24 Chevrolet.
AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 14: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 McDonalds Toyota, and Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, Lead the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 14, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Traction Compound Talk
Some drivers say that the traction compound isn’t necessarily needed on race tracks anymore. While it’s there to help the betterment of the show, there’s times to where it’s more of a detriment than a welcomed addition.
On Sunday in Phoenix, the VHT was questioned again. Is it better to have it at Phoenix, or not? In one way, since it’s been on the 1-mile Arizona oval, the fastest race cars still won the race. On the other hand, has it really helped the show? Are we to a point to where we even need it anymore?
“The tire has a decent amount of falloff which presents an opportunity for some strategy, as we saw today, if the caution comes out five, ten laps into a run, creates quite the questions on what to do,” said second place finisher Joey Logano. “That’s a good thing, where it’s not just a no-brainer type of pit call. I like how that kind of splits the field up. That part’s good.
“I think fastest car is able to win the race. I think that’s happened probably the last three or four times here, the fastest car has won. I think that’s fair. That’s what we all want. But it’s the opportunity to make something happen if you’re in the hunt towards the end, have a good pit stop, a good restart, you can do some big moves as well.
“I think the track is pretty racy. I think it definitely evolves throughout the race as the traction compound wears off. That definitely changes what you need in your race car as you tune your car.
“And the tire itself, like I said, it has some falloff. I still get these weird vibrating runs, I don’t know what that is, that one cost us a championship, and I got another one today. We definitely have to look into the tire, for sure.”
Drivers can pass through the field, but as Denny Hamlin notes, in order to do so, they still need long green flag runs to get there.
“I’m more of a probably a purist on these short tracks,” he said. “It’s the dominant lane. Originally when PJ1 came out, it was meant to be an option when you come up on lap traffic or when you come up on a car and you’re faster, it’s an option to try to get around. It’s the dominant lane here at this racetrack. Again, you run in and out of it at times, but still if it doesn’t wear off, it’s the fastest way around the racetrack.
“The first time here, they had it higher. We used the bottom mostly, just used the top every now and then. They sprayed it just a little bit lower for the championship race, I believe, and I don’t know, take some still pictures of pretty much all the races, everyone is kind of running in a train up top.
“I don’t know. I also agree with Joey, as well, the fastest car has won for the last handful of races. But if you put Martin in traffic, he might have gotten around, I’m not sure.
“I guess I’m indifferent on it is the long answer. I’d prefer it to be probably a little bit higher and less grippy.”
Truex, as the winner, said he’s not so sure the PJ1 affected his win or not.
“I mean, it’s hard to say honestly. I mean, if you have no traction compound, everybody races around the bottom. If you have traction compound, everybody tries to use it to the best of their advantage.
“Either way you look at it, you have a preferred groove. It just so happens that now with PJ1, it’s up the racetrack. Without it it’s at the bottom.
“I thought the PJ1 today for whatever reason maybe wasn’t as sticky as the last time we were here. I don’t know if it’s because the Xfinity cars wore it off some yesterday and they didn’t reapply it. We’ve seen guys being able to work the bottom. I worked quite a lot of guys underneath them when they were in the PJ1 to make a pass.
“To answer your question, it’s hard to say without knowing. It seems like every race here is a little bit different. It just would have been everybody fighting for the bottom if there was no PJ1.”
“It’s tough to say,” said Hamlin. “I think if you get the lead and you have the next-fastest car behind you, the next-fastest car has to wait 20 laps, 25 laps for the pace really to lose a half a second. Again, the dominant line is run around the top in PJ1. It’s very difficult.
“When we were running around the bottom here, you could force the guy off the bottom. You could pack air and really kind of force the leader off the bottom, you could get position, next thing you know you’re on the bottom in three and four, that’s where you want to be, you complete the pass.
“Here you have to run in their wake. Most of the time you’re just worried about losing a position if someone is right behind you. You don’t even want to make a move to run low and make a move on the leader because you’re likely to lose a spot.
“The fastest car can get to the front, but he needs long runs to do it.”
Logano, says that the biggest adjustment other than PJ1 has been the racing package. The lower downforce stuff works best he notes.
Martin Truex Jr. finished second in the second stage as he becomes the third driver to finish second in the second stage at Phoenix to end up winning the race outright in the end. In fact, six of the last seven drivers have finished either first or second in the second stage with the only outlier being Joey Logano’s seventh place Stage 2 finish in this very race last year. Kevin Harvick also finished seventh in his win in 2018, but other than that, it’s been either first or second finishes in the second stage in seven of the last nine races in the desert.
Martin Truex Jr. had sort of a subdued celebration. Don’t get him wrong, he was happy to win. But the lack of burnout and low key celebration was by design.
“It’s just a crazy feeling,” said the race winner. “You just get kind of reminiscent, thankful. Honestly, I was just confused. I wasn’t allowed to do a burnout. That really sucked (laughter). James is like, No burnout, we need this engine for Darlington. That really just kind of took the wind out of my sails.
“I was so jacked up, so excited, ready to just have some fun out there. I’m like, Okay, I can’t do anything. Now I got to park here. My guys, I can’t see them. Victory Lane is like four people. The whole thing is weird. It’s not as exciting as Victory Lane should be, I guess to answer your question. That was part of it.”