5 things to look for from Vegas to Phoenix

Can William Byron Avoid Regular Season Slump?

William Byron may have lucked into a win in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400, but it’s not like he wasn’t a deserving winner either. Byron led a race-high 176 of 271 laps in Sunday’s race including sweeping both stages to score his first win of the season. Now, can Byron avoid the dreaded slump after?

The 25-year-old hasn’t won in bunches. His first victory came in the 2020 Coke Zero Sugar 400. He had just a pair of top five finishes in the 10 races after. 4 of those 10 races he finished outside the top 20.

His next win came in the third race of the 2021 season at Homestead. He’d not win the rest of the year. In fact, Byron had just 11 more top five finishes in the remaining 33 races.

Last season, Byron won the 5th race of the season in Atlanta. He’d back that up with another win three races later in Martinsville. It was starting to look like Byron was going to be the guy that we all expected him to be. However, that was his final win of the 2022 season.

He had one top five finish the rest of the way. In fact, he went the next 18 races with just one top 10 result in total.

Now, he’s back to victory lane in the third race of the 2023 season. Can he use that win and his downfall after his last wins and turn it into more consistency moving forward?

Hendrick Motorsports

Sunday wasn’t just about Byron. In fact, the entire Las Vegas race weekend was more about Hendrick Motorsports in general. From the get-go on Friday evening with the announcement that Chase Elliott would miss time due to an injury suffered in Colorado to Josh Berry filling in for him to HMS going 1-2-3 at the close of the weekend, HMS made a lot of noise.

They led all but 21 laps and went 1-2 in Stage 1, 1-2-3 in Stage 2 and 1-2-3 in the end. It was a flex of their muscle that while they had a slower than normal start to the season, that they’re going to be as good, if not better, than they have in the past few years.

This was a statement that when we come back to Las Vegas in the Fall, that HMS is going to be a force to be reckoned with. Now is Phoenix, the site of the 2023 season finale. If HMS looks as dominate or even a fraction of as dominant as they were last weekend in Vegas, it could sent shockwaves through this garage that the championship once again runs through them.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 05: William Byron, driver of the #24 RaptorTough.com Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 05, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Chevrolet Is 3-for-3, Can They Close Ford’s Gap In Phoenix?

For the first time in well over a decade, a manufacturer has swept the opening three races to a season. Chevrolet won the season opening Daytona 500 with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. They won the next week at Fontana with Kyle Busch. Now, William Byron was victorious in Las Vegas.

3 races, 3 different tracks, 3 different winners, 3 different teams, 1 manufacturer.

Does that change Sunday in Phoenix?

The Ford’s had the leg up on the competition a year ago in the two annual visits to the Arizona track. They led 89% (558-for-624 laps led) overall, including 248 of the 312 in the spring race and 310 of the 312 in the Fall.

However, last week in Las Vegas, they were no where to be found up front. They had just two cars in the top 12 (Austin Cindric 6th, Kevin Harvick 9th). Brad Keselowski (5 laps led) was their only leader.

Is that a concern for the playoff race this Fall? That’s a race Joey Logano won last year and used to help his championship push at this very track in Phoenix. Then, how much do they take their dominance at Phoenix last year and use it to carry over to 2023?

Hendrick Motorsports led 65 of the remaining 66 laps between the two races last year at Phoenix with the only other driver to lead a lap in Phoenix last year being AJ Allmendinger (1 lap, Fall race).

Sunday’s race will be a statement in more ways than one.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 06: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, Harrison Burton, driver of the #21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford, and William Byron, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 06, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The New Racing Package

There’s no doubt about it, the short track package last season was arguably the worst discipline for this new car.

Bristol’s spring race had the least amount of lead changes in well over a decade. Richmond has largely been a bust last year. They had 13 and 16 lead changes. That the worst since the 2019 package which was dubbed a mistake and changes were made. Same for Martinsville. It was terrible back in the spring of a year ago. The 5 lead changes that night were the same as we saw for 2019 too. The pair of 2019 races (3 lead changes each) and this past spring (5) were the worst there since 1997. There were 18 and 15 respectively just one year ago. Last week we saw 6 cautions and 8 lead changes.

What about Phoenix?

There were 14 lead changes in the spring race and just 11 in the championship race. There were 22 and 18 respectively a year prior. The 14 lead changes in the spring were the least amount since….2019. The 11 was even lower.

“Had good track position from our qualifying effort but passing was just impossible,” Hamlin said at Bristol last year. “It was just a type of day where you needed to stay up front at all costs and we just couldn’t quite do it and ended up having a blown tire that set us back and we were trying to play catch up from that point. (The Next Gen car) was tough. I would like to see the racing improve overall. Some lap time variation a little bit. We’re just running around there and it’s like we’re running faster in the corners than we are on the straightaways. Just extremely hard to pass. Just seems like mechanical stuff with this Next Gen and wrecks are the X-factor in moving on so you just have to be really consistent and with five races to go, that’s when you have to start winning.”

So how will Sunday’s race look? Well, NASCAR made some adjustments.

The package features slight modifications to the Next Gen car that significantly decrease the downforce created by the vehicles. This configuration will be utilized at all tracks where “wet weather equipment” will be required: Charlotte Roval, Chicago Street Course, Circuit of The Americas, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Martinsville, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix, Richmond, Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

Chief among the changes are a two-inch rear spoiler (a reduction from the current four-inch blade on the rear deck lid) in addition to several tweaks underneath the car. Those include the removal of three diffuser strakes, engine panel strakes and trimming the diffuser’s outer fencing. All changes were run together during the second day of a January test at Phoenix.

“That basically adds up to about a 30% downforce reduction,” Dr. Eric Jacuzzi told NASCAR.com. “We’re now in a downforce level we haven’t been at since pre-2000s for sure — like mid ’90s.”

With Martinsville and Phoenix being the final two races of the season once again, you can be sure that NASCAR doesn’t want those to flop. Phoenix was a difficult place to pass a year ago and you can’t afford to have it be that way again.

Phoenix would love to continue to host the Championship Weekend, but you can’t keep putting on shows with lack of passing either.

“Yeah, it’s just tough. It’s unbelievable how much your pace is better just getting — you take the same cars that are running 10th, 15th and put them in the front, and their pace is always going to be better,” Chase Elliott says.

Another way this package could be different is that there’s a 50-minute practice session on Friday. Instead of very limited on track time prior to qualifying, teams have 50 minutes of on track activity on Friday and can then make an adjustment overnight in preparation for qualifying as well as the race. How much of a change does this cause?

Does it give the bigger teams enough time to adjust and therefore make their cars better which as a result, could make them tougher to pass on Sunday? A good thing about limited practice is that in a sense, there’s no time to adjust and adapt. You essentially are racing what you brought. This way, there’s plenty of time for adjustments which in turn could cost the quality of the show. As a result of that, the parity isn’t as great as it could be.

FONTANA, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 26: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 Wheaties Toyota, prepares to practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway on February 26, 2022 in Fontana, California. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

23XI Racing Gets Going While SHR Continues To Struggle

Stewart-Haas Racing sits 3rd (Kevin Harvick), 21st (Aric Almirola), 31st (Ryan Preece) and 32nd (Chase Briscoe) in points after the first three weeks.

23XI Racing is in a similar boat. They had high promise entering the season but both Tyler Reddick (34th in points) and Bubba Wallace (16th in points) are back with the SHR trio that sits way behind the pack right now.

However, 23XI just showed signs of promise last weekend. While Reddick didn’t get to qualify due to a motor change, he still came up to finish 15th. Wallace scored a much needed top five effort and moved up 10 spots in the standings as a result.

Prior to last week, Wallace was 20th and 30th in the two races this season.

Reddick meanwhile, struggled in the Clash, was 39th in the Daytona 500 and 34th in Fontana. If you go back to the end of last season, he’s had four DNF’s in a 5 race span including being the second to worst finisher in Daytona and third to worst in Fontana.

Now, they’ve found some solid footing to start going back up.

Right now, Stewart-Haas Racing is otherwise reeling outside of Kevin Harvick. Aric Almirola has finished 21st, 35th and 16th respectively. Chase Briscoe was 35th, 20th and 28th himself. Ryan Preece has been 36th, 33rd and 23rd.

Phoenix could be just what the doctor ordered, however.

The proverbial “king of the desert” in Harvick has been astounding in Phoenix. Since 2012, Harvick has seven wins alone to go along with 11 top two finishes (22 tries). Furthermore, Harvick has finished worse than seventh in just three of those 22 starts too. He was 6th in the spring race but restarted third in the end. He just didn’t have the launch to contend for the win and got eaten alive. He came back to finish fifth last Fall.

Also, Harvick was 2nd and 1st respectively at Richmond last year and finished 5th at Loudon too.

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 WinnersNo. of TracksTracks With 10 or More Wins
Richard Petty5Martinsville (15), North Wilkesboro (15), Richmond (13), Rockingham (11) Daytona (10)
Darrell Waltrip3Bristol (12), Martinsville (11), North Wilkesboro (10)
Jimmie Johnson1Dover (11)
David Pearson1Darlington (10)
Dale Earnhardt1Talladega (10)

In saying that, his only deterrent is, he hasn’t won with this new configuration.

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 22 starts, to go along with finishing worse than sixth just three times since 2012, he’s not won since the track was reconfigured. He’s 0-for-8.

This change has been his kryptonite you could say. 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 2020 and beyond. Harvick, was eliminated in the Round of 8 in 2 of the last 3 years and in the opening round this one.

8 of his last 9 Phoenix results have seen him finish fifth or worse. 10 of his previous 13 on the old configuration saw him finish fourth or better.

Briscoe, won this race a year ago after leading 101 laps. He was fourth last Fall after leading 11 more laps.

For Almirola, since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing, he’s been stout in Phoenix. The Florida native has finished in the Top-10 in six of his last 1o starts including being eighth, 11th and 12th in his last three March starts. If they can’t contend this weekend, then there’s reason to hit the panic button for the SHR camp.

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