5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN)

Chevrolet Is 3-for-3, But 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 nowhere 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.

Also, what does this new racing package (more on this below) do to Ford’s dominance from last year? Does it close the gap to the rest or even widen it?

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 04: Chase Briscoe, driver of the #14 Mahindra Tractors Ford, drives during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 04, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Stewart-Haas Racing Needs To Make A Statement

Stewart-Haas Racing sits 3rd (Kevin Harvick), 21st (Aric Almirola), 31st (Ryan Preece) and 32nd (Chase Briscoe) in points after the first three weeks. This organization is otherwise reeling outside of Harvick. Aric Almirola has finished 21st, 35th and 16th this season 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. It’s time for them to make a statement or this season could finish before it truly ever got going.

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.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 04: Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, drives during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 04, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The New Racing Package

The 2022 season was a record setting one in the NASCAR Cup Series. Last year tied the NASCAR Cup Series record of the most different winners in a single season (19) all-time; joining 1956, 1958, 1961 and 2001.

There were also 1,544 green flag passes for the lead (GFPL), the most ever. A green flag pass for the lead, by the way, is defined as a lead change all around the racetrack, and not just at the start/finish line.

Also, total of nine different NASCAR Cup Series races have set records in green flag passes for the lead this season, including Circuit of The Americas (30 green flag passes for the lead), Atlanta-1 (141), Las Vegas-1 (57), Bristol Dirt (20) Darlington-1 (28), Kansas-1 (41), Charlotte (64), Nashville (47) and Las Vegas-2 (46).

Overall Green Flag Passing Increased Year-Over-Year: In a year-over-year comparison (2021 to 2022), the 2022 season has seen an increase in total green flag passes throughout the field of +6.36%.

Second Closest Average Margin of Victory: The average MOV for this season was 1.011 seconds, which is the second closest since the advent of electronic timing and scoring in 1993 (.909 seconds in 2014).

Highest Percentage Of Lead Lap Finishers In Modern Era: The 36 races of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season have produced an average percentage of 59.46% of the competitors finishing on the lead lap per race – the highest percentage of lead lap finishers through 36 races in the Modern Era (1972-2022).

How could NASCAR back that up in Year 2?

Well, the second year with this car is on another record setting pace.

Through the first three races of the season, the NASCAR Cup Series Next Gen car has been showcasing its performance and the stats are backing up all the great action on the track.

The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season has produced 261 Green Flag Passes for the Lead in the first three points-paying races of the year (Daytona 204 GFPL, Fontana 35 GFPL, Las Vegas 22 GFPL) – the series-most through the first three races of a season since the Loop Data statistic was initially tabulated in 2007 (last 17 seasons).

In a year-over-year comparison, the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season with 261 Green Flag Passes for the Lead, has produced an increase of 34.5% over the 2022 season’s first three races with 194 Green Flag Passes for the Lead.

The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season has produced 18,698 Total Green Flag Passes in the first three points-paying races of the year (Daytona 11,538 GFP, Fontana 3,512 GFP and Las Vegas 3,648 GFP) – the second-most through the first three races of a season since the Loop Data statistic was initially tabulated in 2007 (last 17 seasons); behind only the 2015 season with 19,240 Total Green Flag Passes.

Now, we head to the first short track of the season at the Phoenix Raceway. This is where the Next Gen will truly get put to the test.

That’s because 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 Road Course and Selected Short Track Package will consist of the following:

  1. 2” Spoiler
  1. Remove Engine Panel Strakes
  1. Remove Center and Inner Diffuser Strakes. Only the Outer Diffuser Strakes will remain installed. Spacers will be installed between the diffuser flap and diffuser due to removing the inner diffuser strakes. 
  1. Remove Diffuser Fences and Replace with Baseline Fences.
  1. Splitter stuffers will remain unchanged from the current components.

The rules are in place at the following tracks: 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.

So that teams and drivers can have additional track time to adjust to these new components, NASCAR has made Phoenix Raceway an ‘extended practice’ weekend. A 50-minute practice has been added, scheduled for Friday from 4:35 p.m. to 5:25 p.m. local time.

“We saw incredible racing throughout the 2022 season, especially at the intermediate racetracks. Our goal is to have the best racing possible everywhere we race, so during the offseason, we went to work on adjustments to strengthen the racing on short tracks and road courses. Adjustments will be made to the car that will create a significant reduction in downforce and based on driver feedback and what we saw from the January test in Phoenix, we’re excited to see the results of these efforts.

“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 that 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.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – APRIL 11: Josh Berry, driver of the #8 Chevrolet Accessories Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series Cook Out 250 at Martinsville Speedway on April 11, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Josh Berry

There’s no doubt about it that this is Josh Berry’s chance of a lifetime. The Tennessee native has long wanted to be a NASCAR Cup Series driver. At his age, it’s hard to get opportunities like the one that he’s been given. Which is why my eyes are on him on Sunday.

Berry struggled in his Hendrick Motorsports debut last weekend in Las Vegas. He largely spent a majority of the race a lap down and finished 29th. While it was a steep learning curve to drive the Next Gen for the first time in a limited capacity and have no seat time in a Cup car prior, that free pass is only going to last so long.

HMS is the top dog in NASCAR and went 1-2-3 in a race that Berry was 29th. They combined to lead all but 21 laps. Now, it’s to Phoenix and a second chance for Berry. While I’m not saying that he has to win, or even finish in the top five, I’m saying he has to be solidly in the top 20, if not the top 15.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t necessarily been a strong track for him. While he was third in last year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race, he was also 13th in the championship race and 36th in his only other NXS start on the 1-mile oval.

If he wants to be Elliott’s primary fill-in driver, then he has to deliver.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 06: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, crosses the finish line ahead of Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Dutch Boy Ford, to win the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 06, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney Also Needs To Make A Statement

I’m also watching Ryan Blaney in Sunday’s race to see if he can get his season on the right track. Kyle Petty called him out this week and it couldn’t be a more perfect spot to stuff it back in Petty’s face that Blaney is here to stay and can truly contend for championships.

The Team Penske driver currently sits 15th in points after finishes of just 8th, 26th and 13th respectively this season. However, Phoenix is a spot that I feel like he can contend in and make a statement back.

Blaney, has seven Top-10 finishes in his last eight starts at Phoenix including a pair of third place runs in 2019, 10th and sixth in 2020, 10th (35 laps led) and fourth in 2021 and fourth and second respectively last year. He led 143 laps and won Stage 2 in the spring race of a year ago but pit road on his final stop kept him from victory lane. Last Fall, he led another 109 laps and was runner-up to teammate Joey Logano. He was seventh and 10th at Richmond last year and only 18th at Loudon though. Blaney was third in the Martinsville playoff race too.

The time is now for Blaney to make a statement that he’s going to be a factor in this year’s championship. The knock against him is the fact that he’s won just 7 times in 273 starts. Petty compared him to someone like Kasey Kahne who had a ton of hype, even landed with Hendrick Motorsports, but flamed out. Kahne finished his Cup career with 18 wins in 529 starts.

Blaney has made it to the Round of 8 in three of the last four years, but he also has no Championship 4 appearances and outside of 2021, he’s never won more than one race in a single season. He went winless in 2022 and still hasn’t won this season with that drought jumping to 49 races. 4 of his 7 wins were on “wildcard” type tracks in Daytona, Talladega and the Charlotte ROVAL.

So, what Petty said is relevant. Blaney does his best work when the pressure is off. He’s had top five performances the last two Championship races at Phoenix when he’s not vying for a title. When he is, he spun while running third in Las Vegas last Fall. A week later, he downshifted instead of upshifted in Homestead, while also running third, to make the task really large to make it to the final round.

In 2021, his Round of 8 finishes were 6th, 37th and 11th respectively. He was 4th in Phoenix.

In 2020, he was eliminated in the first round of the postseason. He had 6 top 7’s in the 7 races after.

A devils advocate to this is the fact that Blaney’s pit crew hasn’t held up to their end of the bargain either. More times than not, Blaney comes to pit road and loses spots. It’s hard to think of times to when they consistently gain him spots on pit road.

So this is truly a team effort and one that the entire 12 team can and should make a statement in one way or the other on Sunday afternoon. Fail to perform, then it makes Petty’s statement even more relevant. Go out and win, well it makes Blaney’s case far better…

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