By Cole Cusumano
NASCAR will complete its two-race “West Coast Swing” with a stop in the Valley of the Sun at Phoenix Raceway. The Arizona based track will have a tough act to follow after an outstanding product in Las Vegas, but the venue typically produces action that’s comparable. You can expect wild restarts, varying strategies and high stakes intensity throughout.
Being the sight of the Championship for the second consecutive year, the NASCAR Cup Series and Xfinity Series will have to be on their A-game to find a formula that works come November. However, some stress will be alleviated this weekend, as the series finale will be one of eight races to host practice and qualifying before Sunday.
Themes that have played a large factor in each race in Avondale, Ariz. over the past two years have been the PJ1 traction compound application and the low-downforce 550-horsepower package. Upon initial application, the substance hardly played a role in 2019, but as of last year drivers were really able to get crafty and utilize the synthesized grooves. The rules setup proved to be a winning combination on the flat, one-mile tracks last season, so expect the racing to be top notch.
And what better time to return to Phoenix Raceway than March — Women’s History Month. Track President Julie Giese is responsible for giving a new identity to the venue built in 1964. After undergoing a $178 million renovation in 2018, the diamond in the desert is now a state of the art facility with a high emphasis on embracing the fan experience.
It would be an understatement to say Giese has been a trailblazer for women working in male-dominated world, as she is responsible for rejuvenating the revenue in Avondale and putting Arizona back on the map as a premier destination for sports.
NASCAR Cup Series
Without a doubt, there have been two drivers who have been the class of the field through four races in 2021, and that is Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski. Both have contender for the victory each weekend – with Larson winning in Vegas – and we should expect more of the same from both.
Keselowski will start from the pole in the Instacart 500 and this could spell trouble for the rest of the field. While he is still in search of that elusive victory in the desert, the driver of the No. 2 was one of the most dominant cars in Phoenix last year and finished runner-up in the season finale. He boasted a 3.75 average finish on flat, one-mile tracks using the low-downforce package and even secured two wins.
Larson placed fourth in his only start at Phoenix last year and there’s no reason to believe that Hendrick Motorsports stable won’t be dominant again. Chase Elliott obviously won the Championship event in November and led a season-high 246 laps in Arizona last year. William Byron is off to a great start with a win under his belt through four races and he was one of only four drivers to have top-10 in both events in 2020. Alex Bowman hasn’t had much luck at his home track since a strong showing in 2016, but the HMS stable is clicking on all cylinders and he is highly motivated to perform well in front of the home crowd.
This goes without saying, but Joe Gibbs Racing will be a force in the Instacart 500. All four cars will start inside the top-seven and they all had top-10 placings in Vegas. One team to look out for will be that of Stewart-Haas Racing, who didn’t have driver finish higher than 20th last week. Kevin Harvick is the winningest driver in Phoenix’s history with nine, so there could be cause for panic if he doesn’t perform this weekend.
Finally, Phoenix has been a place dominated by Champions. The last driver to win at the one-mile tri-oval who wasn’t a title winner was Ryan Newman in the Spring of 2017. Will be see the same trend continue or will an underdog break the mold?
Trending on Twitter: Michael McDowell is honored by Glendale, Ariz. Mayor Jerry Weiers with a key to the city and the proclamation that March 11th will now be known as “Michael McDowell Day.”
NASCAR Xfinity Series
There were a few common themes from the Xfinity Series in Vegas that historically should carry over the Phoenix. With the exception of A.J. Allmendinger capturing his sixth-series victory, it was all about Gibbs in Sin City and we should expect more of the same in the Valley of the Sun.
Ty Gibbs will be making only his second career Xfinity start and his first as a winner in the developmental series. The grandson of Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs really has a knack for racing at Phoenix, as he’s led a combined 237 laps in three ARCA Menards Series starts with a win and never placing lower than third. He very well could be contender in the No. 54 on Saturday.
Another driver who had a strong showing in Vegas was the Phoenix’s Spring winner, Brandon Jones. He held off the likes of Cup Champions Kyle Busch and Keselowski for that victory and finished third in the series finale. He’s also off to a rollicking start in 2021, failing to place lower than fourth over the last three events.
It would be wise to keep an eye on every JGR team in this event, as the pit crew program for that organization proved the be the best in business once again at Vegas. This is a reoccurring theme we’ve seen over the last 10 years and it’s something that keeps each car in position to make a run at the end each week.
It’s been tough sledding this season for JR Motorsports. Prior to Vegas, there was a collective two top-10s notched for team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and both came from the part-time drivers in the No. 8 car. Heading out of Sin City, three crews placed inside the top-seven and they could be poised for big day in Phoenix — a track where they all perform very well.
Trending on Twitter: A.J. Allmendinger is … the COVID Ninja Warrior!
ARCA Menards Series
This will be only the second race of the season for ARCA and there’s so much to be excited about for these young drivers rising through the ranks trying to make a name for themselves. Typically, the talent in this series lends itself to an awesome on-track product. It’s also where names are made, as guys like Joey Logano, Cole Custer and Ryan Blaney went on to reach the Cup level.
The depth in the field is staggering with up-and-comers like Gracie Trotter, Drew Dollar and Corey Heim. There are also some proven winners turning some laps in Zane Smith and Gibbs. Not to mention, a pair of Champions in Derek Kraus – who won the K&N West Series title in 2019 at Phoenix – and Jesse Love, the ARCA Menards Series West Championship in November and he’s also on a heater after winning back-to-back touring car races last week in his debut.
Trending on Twitter: Love is in the air and it very well could be on Friday night for the ARCA Series in Phoenix.
Phoenix Raceway is a track that provides a tremendous product in each event. This will also serve as an appetizer for what to expect when NASCAR (and ARCA) return here for Championship Weekend in November. Catch the ARCA Series in the General Tire 150 on March 12 at 7:30 p.m. ET on MRN. The Xfinity Series will take to the track in the Call 811 Before You Dig 200 on March 13 at 5:30 p.m. ET on FS1 and the Cup Series will but a bow on the weekend March 14 with the Instacart 500 at 3:30 p.m. ET on Fox.