Kyle Larson set the early pace in Friday’s NASCAR Cup Series practice session from the Phoenix Raceway. The 2021 series champion turned a lap of 131.258 mph in his No. 5 Chevrolet near the onset of the 50-minute practice which held up to be P1 this afternoon.
Larson was also quickest on the 10-lap average chart as well.
This didn’t use to be one of his better tracks. Now it’s become one. Larson, has three Top-5 finishes in his last six Phoenix starts including being seventh and first respectively in 2021 and 34th and 9th last year. However, that spring race finish a year ago isn’t indicative on how strong his car was because he was seventh and fifth in the first 2 stages. The thing is, while having seven Top-10 finishes in his last eight Phoenix tries, Larson also has just one career win in 17 Phoenix starts in Cup as well. He is 0-for-1 in Trucks and 0-for-5 in the Xfinity Series.
The series added this 50-minute session due to the new rules package that’s being debuted this weekend.
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.”
The drivers said that Friday’s practice was a step in the right direction. Kevin Harvick noted that while the car still gets tight when running behind another car, there’s more off throttle time and the car slips and slides more which gives them room to make moves.
How much will this affect the racing? We’ll find out in Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN).
Last year, the Ford camp had the preferred package and on Friday, they looked like the class of the field again. While Larson and his teammate, Alex Bowman (130.724 mph) had 2 of the top 3 overall speeds, Ford had 7 of the top 10.
Ryan Blaney (131.105 mph) was second in his No. 12 Ford. Blaney has seven Top-10’s in his last eight at Phoenix starts 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.
Logano was fourth at 130.586 mph in his No. 22 Ford. Logano, like Larson, also didn’t used to be among the ones to beat at Phoenix, but over his last seven starts, he has six Top-10 finishes including a win in the spring race in 2020, a third in that year’s playoff race as well as a runner-up in the 2021 spring race too in race that he led the most laps (143). Last year, he led four laps and finished eighth in the spring race but returned in the Fall to not only win the pole, but lead 187 of 312 laps en route to the win and a championship as well.
The tandem was 2nd (Blaney) and 3rd (Logano) respectively on the 10-lap average chart.
Defending spring race winner, Chase Briscoe (130.270 mph) rounded out the top five in his No. 14 Ford giving the last three Phoenix winners each in the top five when it was all said and done. Brad Keselowski was 6th overall while Kevin Harvick was 4th on the 10-lap averages giving Ford’s the early advantage.
The Ford’s 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). Chase Elliott led 50 laps in the spring race, William Byron led 12 and Kyle Larson just two. In the Fall, Bowman led the other lap remaining.
Toyota led zero laps and was only 4-7-13 as their best performers last March and 7-8-10-15 in the Fall. They once again look to be chasing the Ford’s and Chevy’s.
The top Toyota driver in practice was Bubba Wallace (129.413 mph) in 16th. His teammate Tyler Reddick (129.083 mph) was 22nd. Joe Gibbs Racing went 17th (Martin Truex Jr.), 19th (Denny Hamlin), 24th (Christopher Bell) and 28th (Ty Gibbs).
Starting position matters so much in Phoenix. 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.
Next up: Qualifying at 2:05 p.m. ET (FS1, MRN)