NASCAR at Phoenix 2016: Preview, Prediction for the Good Sam 500
In the last calendar year, we learned that two black holes that collided over a billion years ago creating a gravitational wave that Albert Einstein predicted and that Kevin Harvick is like really good at Phoenix International Raceway.
He’ll be the favorite when the drivers flip the switch for the Good Sam 500, the second race in NASCAR Goes West and the fourth race of the season.
Whatever is in the rig of that No. 4 Chevy is unknown to all but Team Harvick. Whatever it is, that car drives on rails. At one point, he won four straight races at Phoenix and five out of six.
Last year in the rain-shortened finale to the Eliminator Round, Harvick finished second. Come Monday, he gives the people Bloomin’ Onions.
Please and thank you.
In any case the season unfolds: three different winners from three different teams from three different engines.
Let’s see what will shake out in Arizona. Read on for this week’s preview and prediction, a slightly different approach than in weeks past.
By the Numbers: Phoenix International Raceway
Good Sam 500
Place: Phoenix International Raceway
Date: Sunday, March 13
Pre-race Coverage: 3 p.m. (ET), Fox
Green Flag: 3:30 p.m. (ET), Fox
Distance: 312 laps, 312 miles (500 km)
Defending winner: Kevin Harvick
Current Chase Standings
1. Kyle Busch, 116 points
2. Jimmie Johnson, 110 points
3. Kevin Harvick, 109 points
4. Joey Logano, 104 points
5. Kurt Busch, 102 points
6. Brad Keselowski, 98 points
7. Carl Edwards, 96 points
8. Denny Hamlin, 93 points
9. Martin Truex Jr., 90 points
10. Austin Dillon, 90 points
11. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 79 points
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 78 points
13. Kasey Kahne, 77 points
14. Ryan Blaney, 72 points
15. Aric Almirola, 69 points
16. Jamie McMurray, 66 points
Bold equals 2016 race winner and a clinched spot in the Chase
The Too-Early-to-Watch Chase Bubble
The Two Above the Line
Almirola, through three races, sits in 15th place.
Most upsetting for the No. 43 is that he started the race in windy Las Vegas ninth in the drive standings and dropped all the way to 15.
That’s the type of movement he needs to avoid.
McMurray was a chaser in 2015 but the kind who never had a teaspoon of contention in his recipe.
He moved up one spot from last week to this week, but he’ll need to find more speed if he thinks he can contend for a Sprint Cup.
An average finish of 19.8 at Phoenix means he could drop right out of the Chase Grid this week.
The Two Below the Line
Oh, Ryan Newman, the eternally tough driver to pass also has the hardest time of late passing drivers.
He has one win at Phoenix, but that came way back in 2010.
Newman has led just a single lap this year and appears to be no better than a 12th-place driver at this point.
At least Newman has company with his teammate here.
Paul Menard, to his credit, moved up from 23th a week ago to 18th after Vegas.
Menard and Newman made the Chase in 2015 without winning a race. We’ll wait and see as the drivers in 15th and 16th aren’t inspiring a whole lot of confidence either.
Ryan Blaney, Up 10
Ryan Blaney, the rookie in the shadows, earned a big top 10 in Vegas, one he hopes will set the tone for the remainder of the season.
"This was very significant," Blaney said in Joe Menzer’s FoxSports.com story. "Especially after Atlanta last week, getting spun out on the last lap. (That) kind of got us down a lot. To come here and have a solid run all day really ups the spirits. This team is working very well together."
Given the sheer volume of 1 ½-mile tracks on the circuit, that finish means Blaney should run in the top 16 most weeks, and that will put him in the Chase (if he can sustain it).
Matt Kenseth, Down 10
This fall hurts.
Matt Kenseth, who has had some of the worst luck through three races, fell from 12th to 22nd after Chase Elliott horribly rear-ended him at Vegas.
"I just turned off in there, and it just spun out before I knew what happened," said Kenseth in Tom Jensen’s FoxSports.com story.
The good news for Kenseth is that he has the team and the talent to pick off a win somewhere. He doesn’t necessarily have to worry about points, but the pressure will mount if he doesn’t strike Victory Lane soon.
FRR Withdraws Appear of Cole Pearn
These are never the types of vacations you want, but it appears Cole Pearn, crew chief to the No. 78 car, will serve his suspension for a roof-flap violation following the Atlanta race, according to NASCAR.com's Kenny Bruce.
Joe Gibbs Racing, which has an alliance with Furniture Row, ships director of fabrications Todd Berrier to the No. 78 pit box for the race in Phoenix.
FRR team president Joe Garone said, per Bruce, “Todd knows our system very well. He has worked with Martin, Cole, the majority of our crew and Toyota.”
It’s only the fourth race of the season, and Martin Truex is driving like a champion. Serving this suspension quickly puts it in the past and allows the No. 78 team to resume regular activity in Fontana.
Will Kevin Harvick’s Dominance Continue?
Harvick has won five of the last seven runnings at PIR and finished second and 13th in the other two during that stretch.
But there’s a wrench that could jam up the gears for Harvick at PIR. USA Today’s Brant James wrote, “Unless the new lower downforce package completely invalidates crew chief Rodney Childers’ notes and Harvick’s feel for the place, he should be expected to thrive there again.”
That said, Harvick’s been driving fine so far this year, good enough to be third in the standings.
Then again, maybe things aren’t as good. He’s the master of leading laps, and this year, he’s led only 132 laps for 16.5 percent of all laps driven.
The past two seasons, he led 21 and 23 percent of all laps. No cause for alarm; just food for thought.
What’s the Status of Tony Stewart’s Back?
Tony Stewart’s farewell season hasn’t even begun yet. Thanks to a burst fracture of the ol’ L1 vert, Stewart has yet to compete.
His timetable for a return comes down to a crucial X-ray to be taken Wednesday. Stewart said in Jared Turner’s FoxSports.com story:
That's the first time since the surgery that we'll have an update, have a progress report. But for a month now, I haven't done anything but just kind of chill out. The doctors want me lying in bed and walking. They don't want me sitting and standing. I'm definitely breaking the rules.
That makes you question his earnestness for a quick return to racing. Why break the doctor’s rules? Maybe it’s a compulsion, a constant need to test authority, even if testing that authority runs counter to his recovery.
Either way, we’ll have a better idea of when Stewart will suit up again and if he can do what Kyle Busch did a year ago: win a race and crack the top 30. Two big ifs for Smoke.
Kevin Harvick: Let’s not beat a dead horse here (a disturbing image when you really think about it).
Jimmie Johnson: Four wins and 15 top fives make Johnson a strong second choice to win in the desert.
Joey Logano: An average of finish of 13.3, three top fives and eight top 10s speak to his strength at PIR. His average finish is 6.7 through three races in 2016. Few drivers are as strong as him this year.
Matt Kenseth: He’s not as strong as the top three, but he’s led 212 laps and has a win and six top fives at Phoenix. Given Kenseth’s sour luck the past three races, he’ll be driving with urgency and purpose at PIR.
Dark-Horse Pick: Kyle Larson
C’mon, baby, hit me one more time!
Kyle Larson resumes his spot as the headliner of the dark horses. This is worthy of an Internet meme.
A promising seventh-place finish in Daytona was promptly followed by and 26 and 34 the following two races.
Picking Larson again is sort of tongue in cheek. I say "sort of" because he’s done OK at PIR. In four races, he has two top 15s, including a 10th-place finish in the winter race at PIR a year ago.
His average start is particularly strong at 8.5, so we’ll see. Can he do it? Can he break the streak? Or will he continue to founder while drivers like Dillon and Stenhouse grow stronger?
And the Winner Is...Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch hung on for dear life at the end of the Kobalt 400 in Las Vegas. He had the lead with about 30 laps to go using a strong move on a late restart to seize the lead.
But a bad vibration cost him handling, and by the end, he fell back to fourth.
"If I were to grade our weekend, for progress it's an A-plus, but for being as bad as we were and ending up right there it would probably be a B or B-minus," he said in Tom Jensen's FoxSports.com story.
He doesn't have a win yet, but he's first in points with 116, and he's the only driver with three top fives through the first three races.
With one career win at PIR and four top fives, this could be the breakout week for Rowdy.
Stats come courtesy of Racing-Reference.info.