The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series ends its west coast swing this weekend at Phoenix Raceway, in one of the most pivotal races of the season.
For the first time since 2001, a track that has two race dates in the same season is the host track for the final race of the season, now known as the championship race. In addition, the 2020 short track and road course aerodynamic package will be introduced for the first time: A spoiler cut down over five inches from last year and a 1.75-inch smaller front splitter highlight the changes.
Chevrolet has gotten off to a hot start this season, with Alex Bowman dominating last weekend at Auto Club Speedway en route to his second career victory in the Cup Series. Hendrick Motorsports leads all organizations with 220 laps led through the first three races of the year, a 47-lap advantage over Team Penske. While it might be an overreaction to say Toyota is struggling, Joe Gibbs Racing has led just 97 laps so far in 2020.
Despite only having one top-five finish to his credit, Ryan Blaney enters this weekend as the points leader. Flashback to the Daytona 500 and the No. 12 car lost out on a photo finish to Denny Hamlin. At Las Vegas Motor Speedway he was in command of the race until a late caution, while last week he pitted with three laps to go for a flat tire running in second. At Phoenix last fall, he was the best non-JGR car, placing third.
Kevin Harvick was the first to hit the traction compound during qualifying, and it paid off. But once he showed the field it was possible, Chase Elliott jumped up there and put down a 138.116 mph lap, enough for his ninth career pole.
“Kevin kind of made the top work, and I think after everyone saw that, they moved up,” said Elliott, who earned his first Busch Pole Award of the season, his first at Phoenix and the ninth of his career. “It's great to get a pole. We've got different colors this week with (sponsor) UniFirst on our Camaro. I'm excited to grab them a pole.
“It's always exciting when you can put down a fast lap. Hopefully, (Sunday) goes good-that's always the challenge. We'll see, and I'm looking forward to it.”
Harvick will start second, followed by Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson. Ryan Blaney rounds out the top five. Martin Truex Jr. posted the 12th-quickest lap but will drop to the rear of the field following an engine change Friday night.
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Phoenix Raceway (Avondale, Ariz.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Chevrolet
Through the first two downforce races of the season, it looks like the switch to the new Camaro ZL1 1LE has played dividends for Chevrolet. Bowman dominated last week, and it was the best Jimmie Johnson has looked in years. Chase Elliott wasn't all that bad either, but where you at, William Byron?
Who's at the Back: Christopher Bell
Expectations were high for this year's rookie class, and let's not forget, the season is still in its infancy. However, Christopher Bell hasn't been able to get out of the gates in the No. 95 Toyota for Leavine Family Racing, some of which hasn't been of his own doing.
Bell raced among the top 10 late in the season-opening Daytona 500 before getting caught up in one of the multi-car incidents late. At Vegas, he wrecked, finishing 33rd. Last weekend in Fontana, his engine expired, a rarity in present-day NASCAR.
Through three races, Bell is behind the likes of John Hunter Nemechek and Brennan Poole in the rookie of the year battle, currently ranking fifth. Want some good news, Bell fans? Phoenix was one of his best tracks in the Xfinity Series.
Smoke is back. Stewart-Haas Racing announced this week that team owner Tony Stewart will return to NASCAR racing in the inaugural Xfinity Series road course race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 4.
Stewart hasn't competed in a NASCAR race since the final race of the 2016 Cup season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His last Xfinity race came in 2013 at Daytona where he was victorious for Richard Childress Racing.
“It's going to be cool making history by turning left and right in a stock car at the Brickyard, and the racing will be full of action and contact,” Stewart said in a team release. “Any time you can drive any racecar at the speedway is special, and you know I'm going for the win. The date is already circled on my calendar.”
Much to the chagrin of the Twitterverse, NASCAR announced this week it will move to a single lug nut wheel with the Next Gen car. Instead of the current 15” steel wheel, the Cup Series will move to an 18” aluminum wheel (where costs are much higher per wheel). It's believed that the single lug is 30 percent more durable than five lugs.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Ryan Blaney holds the best average running position through the first three races of the season. However, it hasn't translated to his finishing position, having consecutive finishes outside the top 10.
The number of races this season where the winner has had recurring numbers. Denny Hamlin's No. 11 won the Great American Race, Joey Logano's No. 22 was victorious in Sin City, and Alex Bowman's No. 88 was triumphant in L.A. Does this week belong to Quin Houff (No. 00) or Reed Sorenson (No. 77)?
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Busch might not have the best numbers to start off 2020 – though he did finish runner-up at Fontana, but since the reconfigured Phoenix Raceway came into play in Nov. 2018, Busch has been the best, winning twice and finishing second in three races.
There might be a theme, but Phoenix has been one of Erik Jones' best tracks on the circuit since moving to Cup full-time in 2017. In seven starts at the track (including a fill-in start for Matt Kenseth in 2015), the Michigan native has four top-10 finishes, including a seventh last fall.
Ring that bell, because Phoenix is going to be Christopher Bell's coming out party. Lower tier? Eh, though based on his results in the first three races, there's only one way to go: up.
Don't count out a driver like Bubba Wallace, who has a top-10 finish at Phoenix in 2018. The No. 43 team is much improved this year, as just two weeks ago he picked up his best result at the Cup level on an intermediate track. Granted, that was a result of staying out on a late caution.
What Vegas Thinks
It's no surprise that last year's Championship 4 are the favorites this weekend. Kyle Busch comes in as the favorite with 7/2 odds, slightly ahead of JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. 9/2, though he's never won in the desert. Kevin Harvick enters 5/1 with Denny Hamlin just behind 6/1.
What I Think
While Phoenix has been Kevin Harvick's personal playground for the past decade, I'm doubling down on Rowdy Busch (and Toyota), as you can only keep him and Toyota down for so long before they are dominant yet again. With only two of its drivers having top-five finishes this season, it's a big weekend for Toyota because if they don't show up, it will start to get worrisome for TRD.
— Written by Dustin Albino, who is the lead reporter for NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be found at @DustinAlbino on Twitter.