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

How Much Does Missing This Weekend Cost Chase Elliott?

Chase Elliott is out for Sunday’s race at the Phoenix Raceway. How much does this affect him? While we know that he’ll eventually be back and that he still will have a shot at the playoffs, how much does missing this race however become a detriment to he and his No. 9 Chevrolet team?

Think about it, this is an entirely new package racing package being used this weekend. There’s even a 50 minute practice session on Friday evening. That plus 312 laps on Sunday is a lot of data that Elliott and his team aren’t gaining together.

If this package works, then it will be used come November which will be the Championship deciding race. All the other teams have this weekend’s data to base things off of. Elliott’s team won’t. It’s not like they can come back and test here either. Testing is limited.

So when cars unload in November and if Elliott is still in the fight for the championship, he’s already behind the eight-ball compared to the other three teams. They have a baseline off March when Elliott doesn’t.

Which is why I’m curious on how much this weekend and missing it will come back to haunt Elliott later on.

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)

Are The Ford’s Still The Ones To Beat Or Does Next Package Cost Them?

The new short track rules are in place. Which leads to the question, are the Fords the ones to beat again or does this change things? They led 89% (558-for-624 laps led) of the laps last season in the Arizona desert including 248 of the 312 in the spring race and 310 of the 312 in the Fall.

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

Toyota led zero laps and was only 4-7-13 as their best performers last March and 7-8-10-15 in the Fall. Did they do enough to close the gap? Did Chevrolet too?

Chase Elliott led 50 laps in the spring race, William Byron led 12 and Kyle Larson just two. In the Fall, Alex Bowman and AJ Allmendinger each led one single lap.

Elliott has just one win in 13 Phoenix tries. Larson has just one win in 17 Phoenix starts. Bowman is 0-for-10 in top 10’s while Byron is 0-for-10 in top 5’s.

The top Chevy team may be Trackhouse with Ross Chastain having a pair of top three results in 2022. Daniel Suarez was 9th and 24th respectively.

Kyle Busch has three straight 7th place finishes in Phoenix and now gets the car that was third last spring.

Outside of really Busch and Chastain, this could be Ford’s to lose again.

Chase Briscoe was first and fourth in 2022. Joey Logano was eighth and first. Ryan Blaney 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. Kevin Harvick was third on the final restart last spring and finished sixth. He was fifth in the spring race.

Did the other two camps (Chevy, Toyota) do enough to close that gap? Does the package help them and hurt the Ford’s advantage?

Who Needs A Good Weekend?

We’re three races into the 2023 season and while it’s far too early to panic, we are getting to a breaking point for some in the reason that their seasons could spiral out of control. Sunday wraps up the west coast swing. 3 races in 3 different states. It will mark 4 different types of tracks this season as well. From the superspeedway at Daytona, to the 2-mile aged surface in Fontana to a 1.5-mile track last week in Vegas to a 1-mile oval in the Arizona desert on Sunday at Phoenix.

However, as we head back east, no one wants to be returning on their heels.

Right now, Stewart-Haas Racing is 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. They need to make a statement on Sunday.

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. Briscoe is the defending race winner and finished fourth here in November. Almirola has been solid in the past here while Preece just needs to get going.

If they fail to deliver and look like the other three races this season, then they’re in trouble.

Tyler Reddick is also struggling to finish as well. He was 39th in Daytona and 34th in Fontana. Each ending in crashes. He’s coming to Phoenix off a 15th Place result last Sunday. His teammate, Bubba Wallace, was only 20th and 30th in the first two weeks but rebounded for a top five in Las Vegas.

Justin Haley in a contract year was 32nd and 21st in the first two weeks then eighth.

Rookies Ty Gibbs (25th, 16th, 22nd) and Noah Gragson (24th, 22nd and 30th) have some work to do. So does second year drivers Harrison Burton (26th, 15th and 26th) and Austin Cindric (23rd, 28th and 6th). Cindric a year ago, had his Daytona 500 win to fall back on. So far this season, he’s struggled out the gates.

I’m also watching Ryan Blaney in Sunday’s race to see if he can get his season on the right track too. 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…

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)

How Will The Race Look?

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.

Is No. 1 Pit Stop Biggest Advantage?

Phoenix has become a track that rewards track position. 10 of the last 11 Phoenix winners have come from a top 10 starting spot. In fact, 14 of the last 17 have started in the first 5 Rows including 8 of the last 9 from the top 6 at that.

The last two spring races were won from Row 3. The last two Fall races from the pole. The reasoning behind that?

Late race cautions and pit stalls.

The No. 1 pit stall here is such an advantage and if you can use it to your advantage in the end, you have the track position and pace to stay in front.

We’ve only seen 1 overtime finish in the last 11 races. However, the final stints the last two years have been much shorter.

In 2021, the final sprint to the end was 25 laps in the spring race. It was 24 laps that Fall. Last year, the spring races’ final stint was just three laps but 33 in the Fall.

That has set up a final late race pit stop which each time, the driver off pit road first has held on to win. A caution flew on Lap 287 last spring. The cars hit pit road under that caution. Chase Briscoe entered the pits first and came out that way.

Logano and Larson followed suit the last two playoff races in similar fashion.

So qualifying on Saturday is such an advantage for the pole sitter because they get to choose the No. 1 pit stall as a result.

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