The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will stay on the west coast this week for the TicketGuardian 500 at Ism Raceway (Phoenix). The start / finish line was moved from the previous front stretch to the back stretch before the last race in November. This made the racing more exciting because drivers could cut the dog-leg to take a shortcut to the finish line. I expect the racing to be good again this week. The TicketGuarding 500 can be seen at 3:30 p.m. ET on Fox.
Not a fan of the reduced horsepower aeropackage? Then this is the race for you. The cars will be back to 750 horsepower this week. They will still have the 2” splitter, the larger radiator pan and the 8” spoiler. The aero ducts will be removed and the cars will be back to their regular speeds. This means the race should be similar to what we saw at Phoenix last year.
Goodyear brought a new tire compound to the track this week. It is different from what the series used at the track in the race in November. Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson and Paul Menard tested this tire combination at Phoenix last October. Their teams should have an idea of how the tire will wear in the race. The MENCS and Xfinity Series will use the same tire this weekend. Kyle Busch is competing in both races so he should have an advantage too since he will get a full race to figure out the tire wear.
Teams received 3 sets of tires for practice, 1 for qualifying and 8 sets for the race. Goodyear warned the teams, “DO NOT under-inflate the tires because the softer sidewalls could cause them to be damaged.” I hope they listen to Goodyear.
Chase Elliott: Elliott is off to a slow start in 2019 (finished 17th, 19th and 9th in his 3 races) but Phoenix is the track where he can get his season kick-started. Elliott has the 3rd-best Driver Rating and led the 4th-most laps in the last 4 races at Phoenix. Elliott made some long runs and said, “The changes seem to be working. We are much better then where we were at the start of practice.”
Jimmie Johnson: Johnson needs something good to happen for his team. He has a 12.3 average starting position and a 17.3 average finishing position in 2019. Johnson only has one finish inside the top 10 at Phoenix since 2015 (6 races). Last year the No. 48 car finished 14th and 15th in the two races. Johnson was sick last week and he said he is, “Still down a cylinder this week.” Johnson said after his run, “We are lacking a little rear grip and I need to cut better through 1 and 2. Overall not bad. Better on the brakes then yesterday.” Johnson was running laps in the top 10 in final practice.
Alex Bowman: Bowman had one of his best runs in the MENCS at Phoenix in 2016 when he filled in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. He won the pole, led 194 laps and finished 6th. He has the talent to run up front. He just needs a car fast enough to get him there. He really worked hard on perfecting his line in practice. Bowman made 3 long runs. He said, “Every lap it builds tighter and tighter. We need to loosen it up.”
William Byron: Phoenix ranks as the best track for Byron. If you ever plan to use him in fantasy, this could be a good week. He has a 10th-place average finishing position in the MENCS at Phoenix and a 2nd-place average finishing position in the Xfinity Series at the track. Byron said his car, “feels like a teeter-totter. It lifts off the ground when I get out of the corner and dives into the track when I am on the brakes. The balance is way off.” Chad Knaus made a spring change and Byron reported the changed helped. The car was still loose though.
Kyle Larson: Larson tested the tire they will be running this Sunday so that should be an advantage to start the weekend. He also ran well at the track once it was reconfigured. Larson qualified 8th and finished 3rd in the race in November. Larson made some long runs and said, “The first-half the corner, the car will not turn at all. “ They told him to bring it in for adjustments. Larson went back out and said, “It rotates better. I can get to the throttle earlier off of 4 but it is still too tight.” Larson likes a loose racecar so the team worked to free him up.
Kurt Busch: Busch did not have any luck at Phoenix last year. His 10th and 32nd place finishes were not great but he was a lot better than that. Busch had a 7th-place average running position in the November race and an 8th-place average running position in March. Busch made some long runs and said, “It gets looser with every lap. It is worse in 3 and 4 then it is in 1 and 2.” The team was going to add some air-pressure to the tires. After the adjustments Busch said, “A little better. Just need the rear-end to stay into the track more.”
Kevin Harvick: Harvick has been a beast at Phoenix. He has a 2.3 average finishing position over his last 11 races at the track. That includes 7 trips to Victory Lane. The No. 4 team used 3 different setups that worked in the past at Phoenix in the morning practice. They picked the best setup for the final practice and worked to “fine-tune it.” Rodney Childers told Harvick, “We are not the best in any category but we are in the top 3 in all of them.” The car looks really good once again. At the end of practice Harvick said, “I am having a hard time finding my marks. The car is completely different from what we had in the past. We have to use our 2014 notes more than anything. Overall the car is good though.”
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer is following the script for Fantasy NASCAR in 2019. He runs well at his good tracks and struggles at his bad ones. Atlanta was a good track for him and he finished 5th. Las Vegas was a bad track and he finished 14th. Phoenix ranks as his 3rd worst track so temper your expectations. Bowyer asked, “Where am I compared to Harvick on the run.” The team told him, “He is running the bottom more in 1 and 2.” Bowyer said, “Let’s put some new tires on it and I will work on my line.” He was 5th fastest at the time.
Daniel Suarez: Suarez has shown a slight improvement this season. He finished 10th at Atlanta and 17th at Las Vegas. He has been decent on the 1-mile flat tracks (Phoenix, Richmond and Loudon) in his career. He has finished 8 of his 11 races on these tracks in the top 10. Suarez thought he had a car that could qualify in the top 15 but Michael McDowell cut him off in qualifying. Suarez will start 28th. Suarez and McDowell met with NASCAR before practice. Suarez said, “I do not retaliate with my car. I know the teams put a lot of work into these cars and they are expensive. If I have a problem with McDowell I will settle it face-to-face, not with my car.” His car needed help rotating through the corners. Most of his laps were between 18th and 22nd on the speed chart.
Aric Almirola: The No. 10 team has been the 2nd-best team for Stewart-Haas Racing this season. Almirola finished 8th at Atlanta and 7th at Las Vegas. Last year he finished 4th and 7th in his two races at Phoenix. He also finished 3rd at New Hampshire. There is no doubt he can run up front with a fast car. The No. 10 car was too tight in practice. Almirola made some long runs and said, “The car starts off loose and builds tight into the run.” After his final run he said, “Too loose where I do not want to be loose. I lose side bite when another car gets next to me.”
Brad Keselowski: Keselowski was the driver who benefitted the most from the repositioning of the start / finish line. Keselowski finished 2nd in the November race at Phoenix. After the race Keselowski said, “Starting the race in corner and finishing it through the dog-leg just fits my driving style better.” Keselowski finished the last two races (Atlanta and Las Vegas) in the top 2 so he has a lot of momentum this week. Keselowski made two long runs. He said, “I do not feel a difference in the changes. It still cuts pretty good. The rear grip is good. I am working on managing the tires so keep track of that for the runs and see which is better.”
Joey Logano: Logano will have some momentum this week after his win at Las Vegas. He might need it though. Logano has a 25th-place average finishing position in his last 4 races at Phoenix. He did win at the track in 2016 so he can be finish up front if his car is fast. Logano seemed happy with the car. He said, “Getting in and out of the corners is about where we need it to be. I could use a little help rotating through the corners. 1 & 2 are not bad but 3 & 4 is a tight.” He was 7th fastest at the time. They put the setup from the No. 12 car (Blaney) and Logano went to #1 on the speed chart. Logano was fastest on the 10-lap average, 4th best on 15-lap average speed and 4th best on the 20-lap average speed chart. The No. 22 car was the only car to make a 30-lap run.
Ryan Blaney: Phoenix ranks as the 19th-best track for Blaney. He only has one finish in the top 10 in his last 8 races on the 1-mile flat tracks (Phoenix, Richmond and Loudon). Team Penske had this chassis designated for Joey Logano after Brad Keselowski won at Atlanta. When Logano went to Victory Lane at Las Vegas, the team re-wrapped in the No. 12 colors. It is the best car in the Team Penske fleet. Blaney won the pole and the car had a lot of speed. After some long runs his only complaint was being too tight in the centers of the corners. His lap times were consistently in the top 5. Larry McRenolds said in practice, “Blaney has the fastest car from lap 5 – lap 15. Kyle Busch takes over the speed chart after that.”
Paul Menard: Phoenix has not been a track where Menard has had very much success at. He only has one finish in the top 10 in his 12 races at the track. Last year he finished 29th and 36th in his two races in the Woods Brothers Ford at Phoenix. Menard made some long runs and said, “It feels like it is sliding through the corner and not turning.” He was 23rd fastest at the time.
Kyle Busch: Busch is catching up to Kevin Harvick as the “King of Phoenix.” Busch finished 1st and 2nd in the two races at the track last year. He has a series-best 124.4 Driver Rating and led a series-high 359 laps in the last 4 races at the track. He is competing in the Xfinity Series race this weekend so the extra track time should help him understand how the tires will wear Sunday. Busch made some long runs and his team told him, “Your 8th lap was faster than your 1st lap and your 20th lap barely fell off. The fall-off is not as bad this year. We have a lot of consistent speed.” Busch kept asking how he compared to the No. 4 car in practice. The team liked how the car was driving.
Erik Jones: Phoenix ranks as the 3rd-best track for Jones. He has an 8.4 average starting position and a 11.4 average finishing position in his 5 races at the track. Jones spent a lot of time talking with Kyle Busch in the garage before practice. Jones had a similar setup as the No. 18 car. After his first long run Jones asked, “Am I faster running the bottom off of 3 and 4 or if I stay on the track? I feel like I am loosing speed getting off the apron.” He spent a lot of time trying to perfect his line. The car seemed to be pretty good.
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin is off to a hot start in 2019. He has finished every race in the top 11. His best tracks in his career have been the 1-mile flat tracks. He has 3 wins at Richmond, 3 wins at Loudon and 1 win at Phoenix. Last year Hamlin finished 4th in this race and in 2017 he led 193 laps at Phoenix. He can be good when he has a good car. Hamlin said, “I’m tighter off of 2 than I am off of 4. I am pretty loose off of 4 so we need to work on the balance.” The team told him they have a plan.
Martin Truex Jr.: Truex has been good at finishing up front but not so good at leading laps at Phoenix. Truex has an 8.25 average finishing position over the last 4 races at the track but he has only led 11 laps. It will be interesting if sharing notes with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin will help the No. 19 team this week. Truex made some long runs and asked his team, “How do we compare to the 4 (Harvick)?” They responded, “He is beating us in about every category.” After his final run Truex said, “It is consistent. Not sure if that is consistently slow or fast, but each lap feels the same.” The team told him, “We are one of the fastest cars on the long run.”
Matt DiBendetto: DiBenedetto has not had much success at Phoenix (never finished inside the top 20) but he has never had a car as good as what he will have this week. DiBenedetto was fast in Friday’s practice but got caught in traffic in qualifying. DiBenedetto will start deep in the field but feels his car has top-20 speed. He liked the speed in the car in final practice. He said on radio, “I can work with this.”
Daniel Hemric: Hemric has never competed in a MENCS race at Phoenix but he has 4 races in the Xfinity Series on his resume. Hemric has a 14.5 average starting position and a 4.5 average finishing position in the Xfinity Series at Phoenix. That includes a 2nd-place finish at the track in November. Hemric made some long runs and the team said, “Looks good. Keep doing what you are doing.” He was 23rd fastest at the time. After his last run he said, “The car really calmed down now. I can get to the gas a lot quicker out of the corners.”
Austin Dillon: Dillon has had a lot of speed this season but it has not translated into top-5 finished. Dillon qualified 15th and finished 8th in the November race at Phoenix. It was his best ever finish at the track so maybe the reconfiguration fits his driving style. Dillon was complaining that his car was tight on both ends. “It is really bad into turn 3.” The team continued to work on the car and Dillon felt like it was pretty close at the end of practice. His car looked fast, but can you trust him.
Ty Dillon: Phoenix ranks as the 2nd-best track for Dillon but that is not saying much. His average finishing position is still only 19.6. His best ever finish at Phoenix is 11th in 2017. Dillon finished 25th at Atlanta and 29th at Las Vegas. This team desperately needs to find some speed. Dillon made a 15-lap run and said, “It rotates real well through the corners. We need more speed out of the corners.” Most of his laps were run between 26th and 31st on the speed chart. The team made a lot of adjustments. At the end of practice Dillon said, “Good job guys. We definitely improved in this practice session and we should have a good piece for tomorrow.”
Ryan Preece: Preece does have one race in the MENCS at Phoenix on his resume. He would probably like to erase it though. He finished 37th while driving an underfunded car. Preece has 3 starts at the track in the Xfinity Series too. He finished 5th, 21st and 22nd in the 3 races. Not great! Preece was not happy with his car. He said, “Tight, Tight, Tight!!! Like un-driveable tight.” After his final run Preece said, “The rear is chattering and the nose is dragging on the track.”
Chris Buescher: Phoenix ranks as the 2nd-worst track for Buescher but that could change. JTG Daugherty Racing switched to the Hendrick Motorsports engine before the November race at Phoenix. Buescher finished 18th and AJ Allmendinger finished 12th. Buescher qualified 5th in the first round of qualifying but was only able to qualify 22nd because Corey Lajoie cut him off. The team felt their car had top-15 speed. Buescher had the fastest car on the track in the morning practice. The No. 37 team really liked their car. It had good long-run speed and was fast at the start of the run.
Darrell Wallace Jr.: Phoenix is the 4th-best track for Wallace. He qualified 30th and finished 10th in the November race at the track but that had to do with half of the field being taken out at the end of the race. Bubba had a pep-talk with The King before practice. Wallace made some long runs and said, “It does not feel anything like last year. Too tight in and out of the corners. I am getting beat on the exit of 2 and 4. I just cannot get back to throttle like everyone else.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Stenhouse has been one of the surprise drivers early in the season. The new aeropackage seemed to help him out but this week the cars will be back to a full 750 horsepower. Last year Stenhouse finished 23rd and 33rd in his two races at Phoenix. The team will need to find more speed than what they had in 2018. Stenhouse was complaining that his brakes were, “Shaking like crazy.” He brought the car in and they made some adjustments. They told Stenhouse, “You are still cooking the brakes.”
Ryan Newman: Phoenix is the 2nd-best track for Newman. He has finished 4 of the last 5 races in the top 12, including a trip to Victory Lane in 2017 (used fuel millage to win). The question this week is whether or not Roush Fenway Racing can give him a car fast enough to run in the top 10. Newman scraped the wall in the morning practice. It was just cosmetic damage. Newman said the car was, “Too free in 1 & 2.” After his final runs Newman said, “The can has a tendency to chatter if I push it too hard.”
Ross Chastain: The No. 15 car of Chastain was leaking oil in final practice.
Cars that looked good in practice: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Team Penske (Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney), Denny Hamlin
Good Sleeper Picks: Jimmie Johnson, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher
Click here for Starting Lineup
Click here for Friday Afternoon Practice Speeds
Click here for Saturday Morning Practice
Final Practice Speeds
Best 10-Lap Average Speed
Best 20-Lap Average Speed (According to FS1 Race Coverage)
- Kevin Harvick
- Kyle Busch
- Ryan Blaney
- Joey Logano
- Denny Hamlin
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