Bell singing new packages’ praise, can Toyota’s make up enough ground to win on Sunday?

Louvers. That’s the word of the weekend at the Phoenix Raceway. After practice on Friday, NASCAR confiscated the hood louvers from the cars of Larson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, William Byron, Alex Bowman and Josh Berry (subbing for injured Chase Elliott).

NASCAR is taking the single-source parts to its research-and-development center in Concord, N.C., for further evaluation. If any penalties are forthcoming, they will be announced next week.

As of Saturday morning, the hood louvers on all four cars had been replaced.

Same can be said for a fifth Chevrolet car with Justin Haley’s No. 31 Chevrolet’s. How much of an impact will this have this weekend?

Kyle Larson was quickest in practice on Friday and topped qualifying on Saturday. William Byron was third fastest in Saturday’s qualifying session as well. So far, it doesn’t look like much. However, it may not have as much of an impact on Sunday’s United Rental Work United 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) as the new racing package for this weekend does.

Put Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell in the camp of competitors who favor the new lower-downforce competition package NASCAR has introduced for Sunday’s race at the Phoenix Raceway.

Though Bell’s No. 20 Toyota was 24th fastest in Friday’s 50-minute practice session, he was enthusiastic about the way his Camry performed in traffic.

“I don’t know if I’m biased towards it because I really like it, but I made passes in practice that I know that I absolutely wouldn’t have with the old package,” Bell said. “I don’t know. I’m happy. I hope the other drivers feel the same way…

“I felt like I could pass a little easier and I felt like I could maintain my position easier when I was following guys, but we will know more on Sunday.”

Bell, who felt his car lacked short-run speed, was .485 seconds off the pace of Kyle Larson, who topped the speed chart at 131.258 mph (27.427 seconds). They made changes overnight and he put his No. 20 Toyota fifth in qualifying. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has three top 10 finishes in his last four Phoenix starts, but none of which were better than 9th (both races in 2021). He’s also failed to lead a lap in six career Cup Series starts on the west valley track.

The thing is, maybe this package can help.

Toyota does have 2 of the top 5 starters (Denny Hamlin, 2nd) and 5 of the top 14. However, they also combined to lead zero laps last year and was only 4-7-13 as their best performers last March and 7-8-10-15 in the Fall.

The top Toyota driver in Friday’s 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).

The improved on Saturday. That’s good because track position means so much here. 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.

This new 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.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 10: Michael McDowell, driver of the #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford, drives during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 10, 2023 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

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 “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.

Faster speeds down the straights due to less downforce, but slower speeds in the corners as a result of that too. That means more braking and more use of the tires which could lead to a better event.

The thing is, this could also negate Ford’s 2022 advantage here too.

They led 89% (558-for-624 laps led) of the overall laps led here last season, including 248 of the 312 in the spring race and 310 of the 312 in the Fall.

The thing is, last week in Las Vegas, they were nowhere to be found up front. They had just two cars in the top 12 at the end (Austin Cindric 6th, Kevin Harvick 9th). Brad Keselowski (5 laps led) was their only lap leader. They had just 3 of the top 14 qualifiers.

The Ford camp has drivers needing to make statements and so far, it’s going to be more difficult for them to do so.

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. Harvick has won here nine times. He was in the top six in both races last season. Briscoe scored his first career Cup win here last March and was fourth last Fall.

It’s time for them to make a statement or this season could finish before it truly ever got going.

The thing is, they struggled in qualifying.

Harvick (15th) was their top qualifier while the other three (Chase Briscoe, Ryan Preece and Aric Almirola) roll off 24th, 25th and 31st respectively.

Harvick did finish sixth from a 16th place starting spot last year ,so it’s not like he can’t at least get inside the top 10. Also, his first Phoenix win came from the 15th starting spot. Can his last?

Harvick also won from the 19th (Fall 2012) start spot, 13th (Spring 2014), 18th (Spring 2016) and 10th (Spring 2018).

Another Ford driver needing to make a statement is Ryan Blaney.

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.

He starts eighth after having the second fastest car in practice on Friday in not just single car speed but also the 10-lap averages as well.

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…

If the Ford’s aren’t as good as last year and the Toyota’s are a bit of a step behind, then it has to be a race of Chevy’s to lose despite the drama surrounding their camp.

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.

Kyle Larson has been in a league all to himself this weekend. Can he turn that into a win on Sunday?

The 2021 series champion turned a lap of 131.258 mph in his No. 5 Chevrolet near the onset of the 50-minute practice on Friday which held up to be P1 overall.

Larson was also quickest on the 10-lap average chart as well. He starts on the pole.

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.

3 of the last 5 pole sitters won this race outright.

William Byron won last week’s race and qualified third on Sunday. He had the fifth best 10-lap average on Friday. Ross Chastain was in the top three in both races last year and starts sixth. His teammate, Daniel Suarez, is one of just two drivers with a top 10 finish in all three races run this season, was in the top 10 in this race last year and starts in Row 6 on Sunday.

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