Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott are both good friends, the sons of famous former drivers and the faces of NASCAR’s next generation. Come Sunday, they’ll also be who the field starts chasing, on the front row for Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway (Phoenix).
Can both men turn around a sluggish start to 2019?
Blaney’s been a step behind his Team Penske teammates, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, both of whom have already won this season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The 25-year-old has yet to score a top-10 finish, in fact, dogged by a broken valve stem and the victim of a Daytona multi-car wreck.
Chase Elliott’s problems, meanwhile are directly connected to the car he drives. Daytona’s strong qualifying performance for Hendrick Motorsports faded fast with the reality Chevrolet’s Camaro make is still not completely up to speed. Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch notwithstanding, the manufacturer has struggled while HMS has yet to post a top-5 finish. Elliott’s ninth-place finish at Las Vegas is the best for the four-car operation with NASCAR’s new handling package for intermediate tracks.
But Elliott and HMS have a chance to go back to basics this weekend. One-mile ISM Raceway out in Phoenix is more like a short track than a cookie-cutter oval. The sport’s old 750-horsepower package will be in effect, albeit with a taller rear spoiler and a larger splitter. The result has been faster speeds and more opportunity for driver skill to play a role.
It’s a chance for Blaney and Elliott to write a new chapter in a 2019 storybook dominated by familiar names. Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin is 38; Keselowski and Logano already own Cup titles. Kyle Busch has been stealing storylines in the sport’s feeder series, winning four of the seven support races held this year at NASCAR’s Xfinity and Truck Series level.
“We just have to clean some stuff up,” Blaney said when asked what’s kept him out of Victory Lane. “Our finishes definitely don’t reflect how we’ve been running. The best thing we can do is control the things we can control and if we keep bringing fast cars to the racetrack, hopefully it will work out one of these times.”
Having to lift off the throttle again puts control back in the hands of Blaney and Elliott. Now, we’ll see if they can execute and put the sport’s fresh young talent front and center one week after an uptick in NASCAR TV ratings after Las Vegas.
Could the sport be on the verge of harnessing momentum? Stay tuned.
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: ISM Raceway (Avondale, Ariz.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Joey Logano
The reigning MENCS champion hasn’t missed a beat since holding up that title trophy last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The Daytona 500 turned into a near miss when Ford pseudo-teammate Michael McDowell wouldn’t work with Logano down the stretch. Two weeks later, he cashed in on Victory Lane at Las Vegas after he and teammate Brad Keselowski settled the race amongst themselves. If not for a late-race tire problem at Atlanta while running second, Logano might be three-for-three on top-5 finishes.
Three races in, he leads the points standings and has an air of healthy confidence about him. Just 28 years old, this once-a-generation talent could get scary good now that’s he fully comfortable in his own skin.
Who’s at the Back: Matt DiBenedetto
Daytona 500’s Cinderella story had his glass slipper broken with a late-race wreck. Since then, DiBenedetto has disappeared from the front of the field; he has yet to post a top-20 finish thus far this season (21st at Las Vegas). 49 laps led at Daytona was nice but it will mean little if the No. 95 starts backsliding into 25th-place obscurity.
NASCAR’s Awards banquet will be moving from the gambling capital of America to the Grand Ole Opry. The sport announced this week their 2019 postseason celebration will take place in Nashville, ending their decade-long run in Las Vegas. A week’s worth of festivities will culminate December 5th with the main ceremony to be held at the Music City Center.
Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell were at each other’s throats Friday following a qualifying incident on track. McDowell claimed Suarez tried to wreck his race car; Suarez felt like McDowell ruined his hot lap. This much we know for sure; the drivers were at each other’s throats and threw punches after exiting their cars. Suarez claims “they’re not best buddies” but both men said they don’t expect the bad blood to have an effect on Sunday’s race. (They start alongside each other in Row 14).
Kurt Busch added to his Cup Series sponsorship this week. Global Poker will sponsor the No. 1 car at ISM Raceway as part of a multi-race deal with Chip Ganassi Racing. The company is testing the waters this year before potentially expanding with a larger deal in 2020 and beyond. It’s also an important financial step for Busch, the 40-year-old former Cup champion whose main backer Monster Energy ends its title sponsorship with NASCAR after 2019. (Its future with Busch remains unknown.)
Bayley Currey will make his MENCS debut this weekend with Rick Ware Racing. Currey will drive the No. 52 wheeled by Cody Ware and B.J. McLeod in the first three events with limited success. Currey, 22, has run part-time in NASCAR’s lower series with one top-10 finish in 30 combined Xfinity and Truck starts. Telecommunications company Mtel-One has jumped on board as primary sponsor.
Best wishes to former NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series driver Tanner Thorson who was hospitalized after a car accident out in California. Thorson has multiple broken bones and a punctured lung but is expected to make a full recovery.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Chevrolet driver to score a top-5 finish through the season’s first three races: Kurt Busch.
Victories across NASCAR’s top three series for Kyle Busch after his victory in the sport’s Xfinity Series Saturday. He’s just two behind Richard Petty’s legendary 200, although all those wins came at just one level: Cup.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Tall spoiler, small spoiler, it doesn’t matter; don’t expect a spoiler when it comes to Kevin Harvick at Phoenix. Harvick has excelled here from the second he stepped foot in the No. 4 for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. 10 starts in that car have produced five wins and no finish worse than sixth. Overall, Harvick has a NASCAR-best nine victories in the Phoenix desert which is the most for him at any racetrack on the circuit. An eighth-place starting spot for Sunday is simply an added bonus: expect some position differential points headed your way.
Chase Elliott has usually been able to back up his Phoenix starting spot with actual results. In four previous races, he’s started in the top 5 there; three times, he’s posted top-10 finishes in those events. Elliott’s a much more reliable pick than pole sitter friend Ryan Blaney; he has yet to earn a top-5 result at this track.
Kyle Larson starts 31st after he failed to make it to the line in time for his faster qualifying lap. But that could work out to your benefit if he rediscovers some past Phoenix speed. Three top-5 efforts in his last five starts (with 54 laps led in a fourth event) should have you thinking of stashing him on your roster.
Ryan Newman has five straight Phoenix top 20s, including a pair of 11ths last year for Richard Childress Racing. His new No. 6 team earned a surprise top-10 finish last year with former driver Matt Kenseth, one of two top-10 results to end the season. He’s a sneaky pick and will likely be an inexpensive pick for daily fantasy.
How about Corey Lajoie? He wasn’t able to complete more than 23 laps before the engine blew in his No. 72 TriStar Motorsports Chevrolet last spring. But Lajoie’s current ride, the No. 32 Go FAS Racing car was a respectable 21st with Matt DiBenedetto here last November. A 24th-place qualifying effort is a sign he’s ready to step it up a notch.
Ryan Preece qualified 21st as a rookie with his JTG Daugherty No. 47 Chevrolet. Former driver AJ Allmendinger was 12th with this car here in November and posted three top-20 finishes in his last six starts at ISM. Picking a rookie brings risks but Preece has the speed to contend if he avoids freshmen mistakes.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick leads the pack with 5/2 odds to win a record-setting 10th race at Phoenix. Kyle Busch is next at 7/2 with Brad Keselowski at 7/1. Pole sitter Ryan Blaney is just 33/1.
What I Think
Chevy’s started the year 0-for-3 in the Cup Series and I feel like this weekend is time for them to get their season going. Chase Elliott finally cashes in on a career filled with strong ISM Raceway performances and finds his way to Victory Lane.
— 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 email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.