NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series continues its western swing with the Good Sam 500(k) at Phoenix International Raceway. Brad Keselowski took the checkered flag last week in Las Vegas, making it three different winners over the first three races of the season.
Defending Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch is not one of the drivers to end up in the winner’s circle thus far, yet finds himself once again atop the points standings. He holds a slim six-point lead over Jimmie Johnson with Kevin Harvick, who has enjoyed considerable success at this track, right on their heels.
2016 Good Sam 500(k)
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front
Everyone. OK, well not everybody. Only one person in a 40-car field can win a race each weekend. But the first three races have been evenly split among NASCAR’s three manufacturers: Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota. Who we previewed “at the back” during the first two races, Team Penske, finished 1-2 during last Sunday’s tilt in Las Vegas. Positions three through seven in that race came from five different teams: Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, the Wood Brothers and Stewart-Haas Racing. That’s as close as you can get to parity across the board with NASCAR’s new rules package shrinking the gap among at least the top-tier teams.
Who’s at the Back
Matt Kenseth. Kenseth entered the last lap of this season’s first race a likely Daytona 500 winner. Instead? Teammate Denny Hamlin breezed by him and started a precipitous freefall where the end result hasn’t matched on-track performance. A pit road penalty hurt Kenseth at Atlanta and at Las Vegas? He spun out after starting in third, leading nine laps and looking like a possible contender for victory. The 2003 Cup Series champ is now 0-for-3 on top-10 finishes this year and is the marquis name on the outside looking in so far with NASCAR’s Chase format.
Who’s Making News?
NASCAR tracks contributed to the downward trend of the sport this week but only slightly. Ticket revenue reported from 2014 to ’15 was down 0.17 percent, a minor dip that may actually show NASCAR is starting to ease the audience departure it’s seen over much of the past decade. Television ratings, after a large dip the first two races, only fell 5 percent at Las Vegas this past Sunday and the crowd was strong. Could momentum from a strong first three races slowly help turn the tide here?
Martin Truex Jr.’s team has withdrawn an appeal for a penalty that resulted in a one-race suspension for crew chief Cole Pearn. Pearn’s replacement? None other than Truex’s former head wrench, Todd Berrier, who comes over on a one-week deal from current employer Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s one way the new partnership between Truex’s team, Furniture Row, and JGR has been paying dividends this season after the single-car outfit switched to Toyota in the offseason. However, Truex’s team needs to get its act together. After the roof flap gaffe that caused this penalty they failed template inspection twice at Las Vegas resulting in a warning from NASCAR.
NASCAR by the Numbers
DNFs by Hendrick Motorsports in the first three races. They had just seven total during 36 races last season.
First-time Chasers if the season ended today, nearly 20 percent of the 16-driver playoff field. Youngsters Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Blaney (a rookie) are off to strong starts as NASCAR looks for a changing of the guard between generations.
Laps led by Jimmie Johnson this season, more than any other driver. It’s clear the six-time champ is back on pace.
Odds for Danica Patrick to win the race at Phoenix as of Friday morning. In 121 Cup starts she’s never finished in the top 5 and hasn’t led a lap yet all season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
We picked him last week in this space but it’s hard to bet against the driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet at Phoenix. He’s won four of the last five races at the track, came in second in the last one only because of a freak finish due to rain and has led at least 70 laps in every race during that stretch. Barring some bizarre incident or mechanical failure it’s one of the surest fantasy bets you’ll get all season long.
NASCAR’s six-time series champion hasn’t won here recently but boasts four top-6 finishes in his last six starts at the track. An added bonus? Two poles during that stretch, a boost for those who get qualifying bonus points.
Slow but steady can sometimes win the race for you in fantasy. Almirola didn’t pick up his first top 10 at this track until last fall but boasts eight consecutive finishes at Phoenix of between 10th and 19th place. On a weekend when you don’t want an ugly DNF on your roster, Almirola’s your man.
The buzz has long faded from Patrick’s full-time transition into the Cup Series. She struggles just about every week. Phoenix, where she has an average career finish of 27.0, doesn’t exactly jump out at you either. But keep in mind these few things: her team, run by Stewart-Haas Racing, has access to the same Phoenix setup that causes Harvick to dominate. She has extensive experience at the track through her time in IndyCar. And a 16th-place effort last fall, her best finish in the desert, shows potential improvement could be on the way.
What Vegas Thinks
Harvick, as you might think holds the edge on odds at 6/1 but there seems to be some thought his run of dominance won’t return. Kyle Busch is right behind at 13/2 odds followed by Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson at 7/1.
What I Think
Harvick. Harvick. Harvick. Even a new rules package won’t keep down a team that just has Phoenix figured out like no other.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photos by ASP Inc.)