Last November was Chase Elliott's coronation as NASCAR champion, becoming kingmaker at the ripe old age of 24. This Sunday's Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX) is the first visit back to the one-mile oval where the sport's Most Popular Driver won it all in just his fifth full-time season on tour.
A little less than five months later, he's learning how hard it is to stay on top of the mountain.
Right now, it's fair to say Elliott's biggest competition comes from his own teammates at Hendrick Motorsports. In March of 2021, you can even make a case he's fourth on the list thus far, behind last week's winner Kyle Larson, Homestead-Miami Speedway winner William Byron and Daytona 500 pole-sitter Alex Bowman.
Elliott has none of those things, at least, not yet. His season began by spinning out good friend Ryan Blaney in the exhibition Busch Clash, a missed opportunity theme that's dogged him ever since.
NASCAR parity is such in 2021 that Elliott could have that win and potentially two more. A last-lap wreck threw the caution before his No. 9 could get back to the front in February's Daytona 500. One week later, it was rain and an untimely caution snatching defeat out of the hands of victory at the Daytona road course. Since then, a run on the sport's intermediate tracks has revealed a few cracks in the arsenal with his 1.5-mile, low-horsepower setup.
Phoenix, however, offers an opportunity for redemption at the high-horsepower, low-downforce oval where it all came together for Elliott. It's the type of track where a driver can get on a roll once they hit the right setup; former champions like Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch have all won back-to-back races here.
Now would be a good time for Elliott to add his name to the list. Four surprising winners in the first four races have shrunk the 2021 playoff field ever-so-slightly. If the storyline continues, more than 16 winners are possible for the first time since NASCAR's expanded postseason format began in 2014.
It would be good for the defending champ to get his name off the list early, avoiding the same type of negative distractions that dogged Busch throughout much of 2020. The speed at Hendrick is clearly there; all Elliott and company need to do is clean up their final stage execution.
Should Elliott falter, the rest of the 2020 Championship 4 sits winless and would love to pick up the slack. Brad Keselowski was runner-up last November and sits on the pole this time around; teammate Joey Logano won here last spring in the last "normal" race before COVID-19 gripped the country. Finally, there's Denny Hamlin, the 2021 points leader and three-time stage winner who has yet to take the checkered flag when it matters most.
Who will prevail when the sun sets over those Arizona cactuses? Or do we have another NASCAR upset brewing in our midst?
Date: Sunday, March 14
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Track: Phoenix Raceway (Avondale, Ariz.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kyle Larson
Like him or not, Larson has raced back to the forefront of NASCAR competition less than a month into his new ride at Hendrick. A race-high 103 laps led sent him into the Las Vegas Motor Speedway stratosphere, potentially clinching a playoff spot in a sport that kicked him to the curb after Larson uttered a racial slur during an online race session last April.
Third in points, Larson has back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time since November 2018 at Texas Motor Speedway and -- wouldn't you know it -- Phoenix. Talk about a case of good timing...
Who's at the Back: Aric Almirola
All of Stewart-Haas Racing has struggled to some degree in 2021. But Almirola has been off significantly since a wreck destroyed his chances in the Daytona 500. He was 17th at the Daytona road course, a track type that's not his strong suit, before back-to-back incidents ruined runs at Homestead and Las Vegas, respectively.
The end result for Almirola is 28th in points, already 49 behind the cutline four races in. There's still plenty of time to turn it around but the sooner, the better for a driver who’s not exactly the type to go win races in bunches.
The weekend started off scary for some NASCAR crew members as a plane headed to Phoenix had to make an emergency landing in Statesville, North Carolina. Team Penske and Richard Childress Racing employees were on the plane when it lost oil pressure shortly after takeoff. Thankfully, no one was hurt in a safe landing and everyone made it safely to their final destination.
Cole Custer's crew chief Mike Shiplett is suspended this weekend after being busted in a post-race Vegas inspection for missing lug nuts. The incident comes with a $20,000 fine and compounds the early-season issues for Stewart-Haas Racing; only one of their four drivers (Kevin Harvick) is currently in playoff position.
NASCARtelevision ratings have declined this year after holding their own in 2020. The Las Vegas event was the least-watched edition of the race in 20 years, scoring a 2.6 rating and 4.36 million viewers. Every race thus far has ticked downward when compared to the corresponding week the Cup Series ran in 2020.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Lap lost by Kevin Harvick on track en route to a 20th-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Harvick lost just three laps total in 36 races last season.
Driver of the four winners thus far in 2021 to win a race in 2020. William Byron is the only one, victorious at Daytona International Speedway's oval last August.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Chase Elliott may be the most recent winner but Team Penske's Phoenix ability stands out from a fantasy standpoint. Brad Keselowski has never won here yet starts on the pole and has led laps in five out of the last six races out in the desert. Good track position makes him a solid value add when it comes to stage bonuses, fastest laps and time out front.
Over the longer runs, Joey Logano could come to the front just like he did in the sport's last pre-COVID race in March 2020. Logano's won twice in his last nine Phoenix starts, including last year, and has back-to-back top-three finishes at this track. Logano's run better than he's shown this season, in position to win the first two races before getting passed during the final two laps of each event.
Alex Bowman's success at this track has been a mirage since he led 194 laps in a November 2016 substitute role for Dale Earnhardt Jr. That near-victory earned him a full-time ride at Hendrick over the long-term but Bowman hasn't finished inside the top 10 since. What makes this Sunday different for the Arizona native? The No. 48 team had the speed to win with Jimmie Johnson in his finale last November, finishing fifth. That puts Bowman in superior equipment with no practice or qualifying for teams to catch up.
Matt DiBenedetto is hungry after a series of poor-luck finishes to start off 2021. He only has three career top 15s at Phoenix, yet all of them have come in the past three races. Lower cost allows room for better drivers on your roster and a 20th-place starting spot provides position differential potential.
Ryan Preece has kept himself in playoff position despite an uncertain schedule over at JTG Daugherty Racing. Phoenix could make him an incredible value pick as the driver of the No. 37 Chevrolet had one of his best runs last season (18th) at this track last March. Amazing to think in 2021 that would serve as one of his worst performances (6th, 9th, 21st, and 15th to date with an impressive start).
While not a rookie, Ross Chastain finally heads to Arizona for the first time in Cup equipment capable of bettering his Phoenix results. Five runs outside the top 20 should likely end this weekend running Chip Ganassi Racing's No. 42. His consistency here (five runs of 23rd or 28th) makes chances high his improvement will work its way toward the back end of your roster.
What Vegas Thinks
Chase Elliott heads up a bunch of top-tier drivers with 5/1 odds to win over at vegasinsider.com. Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick are right behind at 6/1, followed by Brad Keselowski at 7/1.
Looking for a crazy longshot? Ryan Newman earned his last career win at this facility back in the spring of 2017. He’s 100/1 in the No. 6 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing.
What I Think
I'll go with Brad Keselowski this time to break through and become the first Team Penske driver to reach victory lane this season.
— 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.