As the NASCAR Cup Series gathers at Phoenix Raceway for the running of the Ruoff Mortgage 500, it’s been just four months since Kyle Larson was crowned champion. His victory here last November was the cherry on top of an improbable comeback, complete after muttering a racial slur in an online platform led to his firing from Chip Ganassi Racing and threatened to derail his racing career.
Rick Hendrick picked Larson up the scrap heap in October 2020 and since then, both owner and driver have taken off like a rocket ship. Hendrick Motorsports won the Cup title two weeks later with Chase Elliott, had four drivers in championship contention last year and shows no signs of slowing with the sport’s new Next Gen chassis. Larson has already clocked in a victory, winning at Auto Club Speedway two weeks ago before HMS teammate Alex Bowman outdueled him at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last Sunday.
Will Phoenix give NASCAR more of the same? Since the one-mile flat track was awarded the playoff finale in 2020, the spring race winner (Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr.) has qualified for the Championship 4 that same year. Expect the heavyweights to keep throwing punches here as this race is always circled on the calendar for postseason prep.
Early returns on the Next Gen, meanwhile, have been great from a fan perspective. There’s been highly competitive racing, action delivered with cars that are difficult to drive and can spin at a moment’s notice. Two overtime finishes have been the icing on top as all three races have had green-flag restarts kick off within their final five laps.
Phoenix should help add to that parity: Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota have all won Cup races here within the last two seasons. Expect a brawl among the sport’s top three powerhouses of Team Penske (Ford), HMS (Chevrolet) and Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) who combined to put all 11 of their drivers inside the playoffs in 2021.
Keep an eye on three drivers from that group this weekend who have dug themselves an early hole. Three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin crashed out of the season opener and has yet to score a top-10 finish all season; he qualified for this week on the outside pole. Last week’s pole-sitter and JGR teammate Christopher Bell joins him outside the top 25 in points.
Then, there’s William Byron, who looked to have the pole at Phoenix before winding up third. Bowman’s Vegas win shone the light on how far Byron has fallen behind his trio of HMS teammates, starting off ’22 with a pair of crashes before recovering for fifth at LVMS.
Phoenix is only a one-mile tri-oval but often runs like an intermediate, lending itself to long green-flag runs. So far, the Next Gen has bucked that trend, posting a dozen caution flags apiece the last two weeks. Will this weekend finally be the time drivers settle in after a flurry of incidents?
For Larson and Bowman, they’re already playing with house money as HMS can already focus on the 10-race playoff stint come September. We’ll see if anyone else can stake a claim this Sunday to challenge their two-year reign at the top.
Ruoff Mortgage 500
Date: Sunday, March 13
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Track: Phoenix Raceway (Avon, Ariz.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Ross Chastain
No, he didn’t win, but give a call to this Trackhouse Racing Team driver who led a career-high 83 laps and won the second stage at LVMS. In the end, a career-best third-place finish showed Trackhouse could be every bit as competitive as the Chip Ganassi operation they purchased outright last summer.
“It’s a dream come true,” Chastain said about running for Trackhouse owner Justin Marks. “This is what all the work is for. This is why we train and try to build our whole lives and careers once we realize we can race at this level, is to have race cars like that.”
Who's at the Back: Michael McDowell
Last season’s Daytona 500 Cinderella story hasn’t had the same dreamlike start to 2022. A top-10 finish for McDowell defending his win was leveled out by a wreck at the finish line that totaled the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports car. Since then? There’s been a 31st-place DNF at Auto Club (electrical problems) and a ho-hum, 27th-place result at Las Vegas where McDowell ended the race a lap down.
Tragedy struck NASCAR this week as an accident claimed the life of David Gilliland Racing hauler driver Steven Stotts. Stotts was driving the team’s ARCA car to the race out in Phoenix when he lost control on Interstate 20 westbound in Texas. Striking a Honda Passport in front of him towing a trailer, both vehicles quickly lost control. Stotts then smashed into a concrete barrier where the hauler turned onto its side and caught fire. Two passengers in the hauler, John Zaverl and Michael Mizzelle, along with the driver of the Honda were treated and released at a local hospital.
After the rest of the team made it to Phoenix, Taylor Gray won the ARCA event Friday night to cap an emotional week for the organization.
A new Cup team, the No. 79 of Team Stange Racing, announced their 2022 schedule this week. Former Formula 1 and open-wheel driver Tarso Marques will run eight races beginning July 4th weekend at Road America as the organization gears up for 2023. Marques, 46, has not run in a major North American series since Champ Car back in 2005.
An old fan favorite will be returning to the Cup Series for at least one start this season. 59-year-old Boris Said has been tapped to drive the No. 66 MBM Motorsports car at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas the end of the month. Said, who has two top-5 finishes in 54 career Cup starts, hasn’t run a race at NASCAR’s top level since 2017. The team also announced J.J. Yeley will run their No. 55 Cup car next month at Talladega Superspeedway.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Drivers to score top-10 finishes in the first three races of 2022, the most through this point in the year since 1973.
Race winless streak for Kevin Harvick, matching his age as the sport’s oldest full-time driver is experiencing his longest drought since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Ryan Blaney isn’t the first person you think of at Phoenix, especially since he’s never made the Championship 4. But the Team Penske driver snuck inside the top 5 last November, mixing it up with the title contenders and he’s riding a streak of three top-10 finishes at this desert oval. Leading 68 laps in his last two starts here, Blaney comes in motivated after a crash in Las Vegas, winning the pole and could be the latest in a history of Penske success stories out here. The team last won Phoenix in spring 2020 with Joey Logano.
Another driver who comes in looking to prove himself is Blaney’s good friend Chase Elliott. Shut out of victory lane through three races this season, Elliott hasn’t made it there on an oval track since his triumph at Phoenix, earning the championship in November 2020. Overall, Elliott has four straight top-10 results here, an average finish of 4.5 and 340 laps led in his last four desert starts. Add in some position differential (he starts 19th) and Elliott’s your bet if you think the HMS train keeps on rolling.
It’s hard to remove Kevin Harvick from the fantasy conversation at Phoenix until he retires. Even in a rough stretch with Stewart-Haas Racing, he’s continued a remarkable streak of 17 top-10 finishes at this tri-oval. The last time Harvick ran 11th or worse, he was running for Richard Childress Racing and youngsters like William Byron didn’t even have their driver’s license yet. Add in a track record nine career victories (although the last came in 2018) and you understand why Harvick’s so expensive here. I still believe he’s worth the price from his 16th starting position.
Harvick’s teammate Aric Almirola has started his final full-time season red hot, the only Cup driver to post three top-10 finishes this year. The momentum continued at Phoenix with a fifth-place starting position, and Almirola has recent success here, including a sixth-place run in the November finale.
You might want to take a flyer on AJ Allmendinger, making his first Cup start with Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 this season while running for them full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. The ‘Dinger hasn’t run a Cup oval since 2018 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and it showed, qualifying 29th for Sunday’s race. But a career average finish of 17.9 is above average and Allmendinger has a history of putting top 15s together here for low-to-mid-tier programs.
Another driver with a better-than-expected average finish at Phoenix? Ty Dillon, back in full-time Cup competition this season running for Richard Petty Motorsports. Dillon qualified 21st and won’t have far to go to match his 18.9 average. In fact, a career position differential of +61 in 10 desert starts makes it likely he’ll wind up a little higher.
What Vegas Thinks
Even though Kyle Larson didn’t qualify inside the top five, vegasinsider.com has him pegged as the Phoenix favorite at +350. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch are next at +700 followed by Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott at +800.
Your best longshot pick, Aric Almirola, is sitting at +2500.
What I Think
I’m going with Ryan Blaney to assert himself early in the season with his first Phoenix victory.
— 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.