By Cole Cusumano
AVONDALE, Ariz. — It felt as if the NASCAR Cup Series was set up for failure at Phoenix Raceway following one of the best events in the track’s history the day prior and the exhilarating display in Las Vegas, but it was far from a let down in the Valley of the Sun. What we saw in the Instacart 500 was a fair and competitive race that should be praised instead scorned upon.
Phoenix has been scrutinized with preconceived notions of lackluster racing since the experimentation of the low-downforce 750-horsepower package and PJ1 traction compound in 2019. While, yes, the product was anticlimactic that year, it’s safe to say a majority of the flaws have been worked out over the last three events.
One of the biggest complaints from fans and competitors was this rules package made it difficult to pass, making track position key. This may have been true two years ago, but what we saw in this event is a stark contrast to those claims.
There were 22 lead changes throughout the race — the most since 2013. Granted, some of these occurrences took place during green flag pit stops, but there’s further evidence debunking the stigma, and this comes in the form of Hendrick Motorsports.
If you missed the race and looked at the results, you’d probably assume it was just another strong outing from the Chevrolet team with three cars placing in the top-10. The reality is the trio of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and William Byron all started from the rear for failing pre-race inspection.
The driver No. 24 made his way through the field once, while Elliott and Larson had to overcome much more adversity. The reigning series champion drove his way into the top-10 before receiving a late speeding penalty and rebounding to finish fifth.
In arguably the most astounding performance of the day, Larson ripped his way through the pack to the second-place three times after having to serve two speeding penalties. Via racing-reference.info, he made 145 passes throughout the race, while Elliott completed 139.
Even through adversity the fastest cars and the best teams rose to the top. This was largely due in part to the rules package, but that doesn’t mean it made things easier.
“I think the 750 package is harder to drive,” Joey Logano said after finishing second. “I think experience probably comes out more. There’s different techniques that I think the experienced guys have learned over the years racing cars that don’t have much downforce, a lot of horsepower.”
Logano was part of another dominant day for Team Penske after he led a race-high 143 laps and won Stage Two. Ryan Blaney won the opening segment and all three cars paced the field for a collective 197 circuits (63-percent of the race). The Ford trio have now finished top-10 and earned the runner-up-spot two consecutive weeks.
Although Kyle Busch had a rough outing, Joe Gibbs Racing compiled the most impressive performance of the day. Penske established their dominance through the first-two stages, but Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin ran top-five all afternoon. This was a testament to each team’s ability to adjust to the changing conditions, unlike other crews.
It was a near-flawless execution once again by the Toyota camp. In addition to keeping up with the racing surface, the pit crews were able to service their drivers efficiently enough to keep them in contention. They weren’t as quick as we’re accustomed to seeing, but drivers the Gibbs stable maximized track position on restarts.
They all had incredible corner speed and this was due to their ability to navigate through the traction compound.
“Originally when PJ1 came out, it was meant to be an option when you come up on lap traffic or when you come up on a car and you’re faster, it’s an option to try to get around,” third-place finished Hamlin said. “It’s the dominant lane here at this racetrack. Again, you run in and out of it at times, but still if it doesn’t wear off, it’s the fastest way around the racetrack.”
The decision by Logano to restart on the inside as the race leader with 25 to go ultimately served as an advantage for winner, Truex, who was the fastest car all day in the PJ1.
“We both ended up pretty high on the track,” Truex said when talking about the final restart. “When that happened, I was able to grab the PJ1 with my right sides and get the thing turned, get on the gas pretty early. That’s really what made the difference.”
More on par with the racing from Homestead, Phoenix served as an entertaining indication of what we can expect at intermediate tracks — wild restarts, presence from powerhouse teams and a quality product of competition.
It’s safe to say we have a fair sample size of what to expect for the series finale in November, and that will suffice. The only thing the Cup Series could do to improve upon the on-track product is condensing the racing like in the NASCAR Xfinity Series event or the action from Vegas. Whether that’s tweaking to the rules package or messing with the traction compound, it could be something worth exploring with the luxury of practice during Championship Weekend.