Camping World 500 Preview
March 14, 2017
By Micah Roberts
"Boys, have at it", is what NASCAR says about heated driver confrontations and post race scuffles, so they're having at it.
We're only three races into the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, but after watching the brawl in the pits following Sunday's Kobalt 400 in Las Vegas it feels like we're already in the critical portion of the playoffs.
On Sunday in Las Vegas, Las Vegan Kyle Busch felt he was wronged on the last lap by Joey Logano, the results of which spun Busch's car out to the infield and sent him from an eventual third-place finish to 22nd.
When Busch got out of his car, he was an angry, heat-seeking missile guided for Logano who seems to be an easy target for a lot of the veteran drivers. Part of it is Logano's own fault, but past baggage has made good, tough racing like on the last lap Sunday get some unwarranted blame in situations because of reputation.
The only problem for Busch is that he went into Logano's pit without his own posse and the end result for Busch was getting pinned by Logano's crew and when the pile-up was cleared it was Busch who came away with a bloody forehead.
“I got dumped,” Busch told a Fox Sports reporter shortly after the brawl. “Flat-out just drove straight into the corner and wrecked us. That’s how Joey races, so he’s going to get it.”
Busch is the most recent recipient from the Gibbs stable to have issues with Logano's 'hard-racing' style. Denny Hamlin once broke his back at Fontana and missed six races after Logano made a poor choice of moves at 200 mph and on another occasion Matt Kenseth was spun out while leading at a Kansas race during the Chase and was eliminated from championship contention.
Busch-Logano I was by no means Leonard-Hearns in the annals of classic bouts in Las Vegas, but it did get me pumped to see what happens next as the series goes to Phoenix this weekend on the second of its three-race west coast swing.
Is Logano "going to get it" there?
Ironically, when looking back at what happened at the last Phoenix race in November, it was Logano winning with Busch finishing second which gives us another compelling storyline as part of the tale of the tape. Do we get Busch-Logano II this week?
I'd be all good with some more trash talk, drama and great side-by-side racing with the fenders and doors dented. Let the relationship simmer to keep the NASCAR police off their back, but then have it explode fantastically somewhere down the road.
I think a lot of NASCAR fans that aren't tuning in as much lately will watch that story unfold, too. TV ratings have been trending downward the past few years. Sunday's brawl was shown on every national news channel Monday morning. When Good Morning America is showing NASCAR in their coverage, it's a big deal.
So we've got that going on, but let's get back on point here and start talking about who is going to win the race.
The difference between last season and this year is the new low down force package instituted on the cars at all the non-restrictor-plate tracks. Phoenix is a relatively flat one-mile layout, but the new package shouldn't be as big of a deal as it is on faster high-banked tracks like we've seen at Atlanta and Las Vegas.
Several teams had a two day Goodyear tire test in early February at Phoenix just to see how the new package ran in relation with the type of tire Goodyear is scheduled to use. There were four sessions between the days and Logano was fastest in one of them, Kevin Harvick was fastest in another and Kyle Larson was fastest in two of them.
Those names suggest there isn't that much change with those who traditionally the track. Larson finished third in November and Harvick won the race last March. With Logano's fall win, it looks like same old business as usual with the cars.
Harvick comes in as the favorite based on holding the track record with eight wins in 28 starts, including five of the last seven. He's won at least one race a season at Phoenix the past five years and has led a track record 1,484 laps over his career.
He's been racing on this track his entire life and it's been amazing to see him keep up impressive run while also switching teams from Richard Childress to Stewart Haas and this year he'll have another challenge as he makes his first start driving a Ford.
Last week at Las Vegas, Harvick ended his race early with a blown tire and the week before in Atlanta he got a late speeding penalty after leading 292 of 325 laps. His luck hasn't been so good yet, and he's definitely not a 'Happy' Harvick, but the performance of his new Ford isn't in doubt as his test session validated last month.
Phoenix should bring out the best in him this week.
As for the two pugilists, Logano's win last season was his first in 16 starts, but has finished ninth or better in sixth of his past seven starts there.
Kyle Busch has a 2005 win under his belt when he drove for Hendrick Motorsports. He's finished fourth or better in his last three starts. I can't wait to see them running against each other in the top-five all race. While Busch might think he has a score to settle, he really needs to stay focused and think bigger picture like winning another championship.
But he also can't let the issue pass, because next thing he knows is that other drivers are going to try and 'punk' him.
The problem with an odds-to-win or match-up wager with these two guys is they could take each other out. There's a danger alert on both these guys right now. Bettors beware.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to be a driver that could present good value at the bet windows just because he won the 2015 fall race and was fifth last March. He missed the fall race because of a concussion, but his sub in the No. 88 car, Alex Bowman, sat on the pole and led 194 of 325 laps before settling for sixth-place.
Another driver that should be fetching odds over 20-to-1 is 2005 Phoenix winner Kurt Busch. He's finished seventh or better in his last five starts there.
Jimmie Johnson has won four times at Phoenix and has an 8.9 average finish in 27 starts. However, his last win there was in 2009 -- Harvick started dominating there in 2012. Despite his outstanding past achievements on the track, the seven-time Cup champion has only one top-10 finish in his past five starts in the desert. He finished 38th in November after he had already qualified to make the Championship Race the following week.
Two young guns to keep an eye as a possible winner is Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney. As rookies last season, bit were impressive in the two races with top-10 finishes in each. Elliott won't be available at odds higher than 12-to-1, but Blaney should be found at 60-to-1 or higher.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #4 Kevin Harvick (5/1)
2) #42 Kyle Larson (12/1)
3) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (7/1)
5) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (15/1)
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