The MENCS will return to ISM Raceway for the Cam-Am 500(k). This is the last race for the playoffs drivers to secure a spot in the championship next week at Homestead. Joey Logano already has his spot secured. Who will join him in the Final Four? The race can be seen Sunday at 2:30pm ET on NBC.
The track will be a lot different this week because of a line painted on the track. ISM Raceway moved the start-finish line from the front-stretch to the backstretch. This is the same location where drivers take a short-cut through the apron and slide back onto the track. This should make the race to the finish line a lot more interesting this week.
Here are the Garage Talk Notes for the practices at Phoenix…
Goodyear will bring a new right side tire to the track this week. The tire was tested by Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Paul Menard and Matt Kenseth on October 2nd and 3rd. These drivers should have a good idea of how the tires will wear in the race.
Practice speed at Phoenix usually does not translate into race speed. The practices are in the heat of the day and the track is usually much cooler at the end of the race. We can still gather some information about the handling of the cars.
The teams in the playoff have an * next to their names.
* Chase Elliott: Elliott must win the race in order to keep his playoff hopes alive. Elliott is 17 points below the cut line and he will need a lot of Stage points and finish up front Sunday. Phoenix ranks as the 3rd-best track for Elliott. His average starting position is 6.8 and his average finishing position is 6.8. He should have won the race at ISM Raceway last year. Elliott made some long runs and he said, “They entry may be the best we have ever had here. The exit needs a little more forward bite.”
Jimmie Johnson: Johnson has two races left on the schedule to keep his consecutive seasons with a win streak alive. I doubt it will happen. Johnson has a 17.8 average starting position and a 16.2 average finishing position in the playoffs. This team will be helping Chase Elliott this week and than worrying about where they finish. Johnson made some long runs and reported that his car was too loose. Chad Knuas told him, “Adjust your trackbar and see if that helps.” Johnson replied, “Not much help there.”
Alex Bowman: Phoenix is one of the best tracks for Bowman. He won the pole, led 194 laps and finished 6th while filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2016. Earlier this year Bowman qualified 4th and finished 13th. He knows how to turn fast laps at ISM Raceway. Bowman was fighting a loose race car in practice. They worked to tighten him up and he felt the car was better in the 2nd practice.
William Byron: Byron only has one start at Phoenix in a MENCS car. He qualified 11th and finished 12th. He does have a win at the track in the Xfinity Series so he does know how to get around ISM Raceway. Byron made some long runs and said, “A little free on entry and exit but not too bad. I can drive it but it would be a lot faster if I could get into the corner better.”
Kyle Larson: Larson could be a sneaky good pick this week. He finished 2nd and 3rd at Phoenix in 2016 and 2017. In March he qualified 2nd, led 54 laps but a pit-road violation caused him to finish 18th. He will have some momentum after finishing 3rd at Kansas and 5th at Texas. Larson unloaded with a lot of speed this week. He posted the fastest lap in the beginning of the 2nd practice. Larson told MRN Radio, “I love this track. When you have a good car it is fun to drive and we have a pretty good car this weekend.”
Jamie McMurray: McMurray has been hit or miss at Phoenix. He either finished inside the top 5 or outside the top 15. McMurray only has two races left in the No. 1 car and it seems like the team has given up on the season. McMurray has 20.4 average finishing position in the 8 playoff races this season.
* Kevin Harvick: Harvick was docked 40 points and had his guaranteed spot in the championship taken away following a violation at Texas. Now he could really use a win in the race Sunday. Harvick has 9 wins at Phoenix and 15 finishes in the top 5. Harvick has only finished outside the top 6 at Phoenix once since 2011 (14 races). The No. 4 team usually stomps the field when they are embarrassed. Harvick told the team, “I got really loose on that run.” The team replied, “It was the fastest lap of the day.” Harvick posted the fastest lap, fastest 5-lap, 10-lap, 15-lap and 20-lap average speed. To say the 4 is the favorite is an understatement.
* Clint Bowyer: Bowyer must win this week in order to advance in the playoffs51 points behind the cut line and winning each Stage will not help him unless he wins the race. Bowyer has been good but not great at Phoenix in his career. He has finished 6th, 13th and 13th in his 3 races at ISM Raceway in a Stewart-Haas Racing car. Bowyer told his team, “I am too loose and have no right side grip. They same feeling I had a Richmond.”(Bowyer finished 10th at Richmond)
* Kurt Busch: Busch has been very consistent in the playoffs but consistency will not help him Sunday. Busch is 3 points behind the transfer position so he will need all of the Stage points he can get this week. The problem for Busch is that he has been mediocre at Phoenix since the 2016. His average finishing position in the last 3 races is 18.6. He will need his best performance Sunday.
* Aric Almirola: Almirola’s dream season may be coming to an end Sunday. He is 35 points behind the transfer position so he must win the race in order to advance to Homestead. Almirola qualified 4th and finished 8th in his first race at Phoenix in a Stewart-Haas Racing car. He finished 5th at Richmond so maybe this team can find a little extra speed Sunday to get to Victory Lane. Almirola made a lot of short runs and brought the car in for adjustments. Almirola said, “It just does not feel like we are gaining much. It is decent but we need to be faster to win. I cannot find that extra speed.”
Brad Keselowski: Phoenix ranks as the 20th-best track for Keselowski (out of 24 tracks). He only has only top-10 finish at the track since 2015. In March he qualified 25th and finished 15th. He will need to find a lot of speed to finish in the top 5 this week. Keselowski made 3 runs in practice with different setups for each run. On his last run he said, “I like what he had on the 2nd run. Let’s go back to that.”
* Joey Logano: Logano won the race at Phoenix in 2016 and secured his spot in the championship race at Homestead. Since that win, Logano has finished 31st, 12th and 19th at the track. This team does not have a lot to race for Sunday but the last thing Logano wants to do is to enter the race at Homestead after a poor race at Phoenix.
Ryan Blaney: Blaney has competed in 5 races at Phoenix in the MENCS and he has a 7th-place average starting position and a 14.8 average finishing position. ISM Raceway is the 11th-best track for Blaney.
Paul Menard: Menard has not been very good at Phoenix in his career. He has 23 career starts at the track and his average starting position is 17.8 and his average finishing position is 21.7. In March he qualified 14th and finished 36th. Paul Menard crashed his car at the end of practice. He will go to a backup car and start at the rear of the field.
* Kyle Busch: Busch is 28 points above the transfer position in the playoffs so he does not need to win Sunday to advance to Homestead. It would sure make life easier if he has a car that can dominate the race. Busch has led more laps (317) at Phoenix and has the highest driver ranking at Phoenix in the last 5 races. His average finishing position at the track since 2014 is 3.6. Busch was not happy in practice. He told his team, “It is 20 out 20 loose. Every change makes it F****ing worse. I am not sure what you are doing but you are killing it.” Adam Stevens responded, “You are 3rd fastest. It will be different conditions tomorrow so just hang in there.”
Erik Jones: Jones is a great sleeper pick this week. Phoenix ranks as the 2nd-best track for Jones. He has competed in 4 MENCS at the track and he has a 8.8 average starting position and a 9.8 average finishing position. He also dominated the Xfinity Series races at the track. He will be driving for the team that who this race last year. Jones made some long runs and he said, “I cannot feel the front tires in the track. It is really tight.”
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin has been very good at Phoenix. He has led the 2nd most laps at the track (230) in the last 5 races. He could have won this race last year but Chase Elliott decided to get revenge on him for the wreck at Martinsville. In March he qualified 6th and finished 4th. Hamlin is at his best on the short, flat tracks. Hamlin made a lot of long runs. He told his team, “The entry and exit are nearly perfect. I need help rotating the center.”
Daniel Suarez: Suarez is a great sleeper pick this week. Phoenix ranks as the 2nd best track for Suarez. He has competed in 3 MENCS races at ISM Raceway and he has a 11th-place average finishing position. Suarez qualified 15th and finished 8th in the March race at Phoenix. He is still racing for a job in 2019 so he should be extra motivated to run well Sunday. Suarez said, “Lot, lot, lot better than Q-trim. I am free in the center but is not anything I cannot handle.” He was 12th fastest at the time and he qualified 26th.
* Martin Truex Jr.: Truex is 25 points above the cut line in the playoffs. He does not need to win Sunday since two drivers will advance to Homestead. He does need to score as many Stage points as possible and finish in the top 5. Truex has finished 3rd and 5th in his last two races at Phoenix so he is capable of running well at this track. Truex made some long runs and said, “It is better than what we had yesterday (Friday).” Truex was 10th fastest at the time.
Ryan Newman: Newman won at Phoenix last year but he used fuel mileage to get to Victory Lane. His win was his only top 10 finish at the track since the spring race in 2015. Newman finished 8th at Martinsville two weeks ago so maybe he has one good race left in him in the No. 31 car. Newman made a long run. He said, “Turn 3 is good. Turn 4 is decent. Turns 1 and 2 need to be tightened up a bit.”
Austin Dillon: Dillon has been horrible at qualifying in the playoffs but he has been decent in the races. Phoenix ranks as his 20th-best track (out of 24 tracks). Dillon has a 17.1 average starting position and a 21.5 average finishing position in his 9 career MENCS races at the track. Dillon liked his car. He said, “It is good all around. If I can be a little more free I can run the bottom better, but do not jeopardize what we have.”
Ty Dillon: Dillon could be a good cheap pick in salary cap games this week. Phoenix ranks as the 2nd-best track for Dillon. He qualified 29th and finished 11th in this race last year. The No. 13 team has been slowly getting better this year but not good enough to finish inside the top 15.
Regan Smith: Smith has been horrible since the beginning of October. Smith has a 27.6 average finishing position in his last 3 races. The No. 95 team seems to be more concerned with preparing for the 2019 season than they are about running well in the final two races. Smith had a lot of problems with his car. He said, “When I turn it, it goes straight. It has not stability. One lap it is tight and then next is loose. It is hard to drive when I have no idea what it is going to do.”
AJ Allmendinger: Allmendinger has two races left in the No. 47 car and it would be nice to see him go out with a strong finish. I doubt it will happen though. Allmendinger has a 20.6 average starting position and 20.8 average finishing position in his last 5 races at Phoenix. He does have a 15th-place average finishing position in the last 4 races in the playoffs, so he does have a chance to score well in fantasy this week. Allmendinger told his team, “The car has consistency. I know what to expect on each lap. Freeing it up a bit will help a lot.”
Chris Buescher: IMS Raceway is the worst track for Buescher and it is not even close. Buescher has competed in 5 MENCS races at the track and he has a 30th-place average starting position and a 31.8 average finishing position. His best ever finish at the track was 27th in the spring race last year. Buescher felt a vibration in his brake pedal in the first practice. They changed the brakes between the practices and he said the issue was resolved. His car was really tight throughout the turns.
Darrell Wallace Jr.: Wallace has only completed in one MENCS race at Phoenix. He qualified 27th and finished 28th. His average starting position in the 8 playoff races is 29th and his average finishing position is 28th. He should finish somewhere near the 28th position again this week.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Stenhouse has the ability to run well at Phoenix. He finished 4th and 8th in the two races at ISM Raceway last year. In March he qualified 29th and finished 23rd. Stenhouse will have some momentum after his 11th place finish at Texas. Stenhouse said the front tires were chattering in the 2nd practice. He was 22nd fastest at the time. Stenhouse had his brakes catch on fire in final practice.
Matt Kenseth: Kenseth won this race last year but he is not driving for Joe Gibbs Racing anymore. Kenseth has had a hard time finding speed in the No. 6 car. He has not finished any of his races in the playoffs inside the top 20. He will only be a good fantast pick if he qualifies outside the top 20 and has the ability to score place differential points.
Cars that looked good in practice: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin
Good Sleeper Picks: Erik Jones, William Byron, Austin Dillon, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth
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