Phoenix 500 Preview
March 7, 2018
By Micah Roberts
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We're only three races in on the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series season and there's already quite a story brewing that will be the dominant storyline during Sunday's telecast of the Ticket Guardian 500.
Kevin Harvick has won two races in a row a few times among his 39 NASCAR Cup Series wins, but never three straight and that's what he's got an opportunity to do this weekend at IMS Speedway, formerly know as Phoenix International Raceway, a flat 1-mile layout he's won a track record eight times.
Harvick has been dominant the last two weeks at Atlanta and Las Vegas and between those runs and what he's done at Phoenix, which includes four truck series wins, the 42-year-old comes in as the heavy favorite to win on early odds posted at Las Vegas sports books.
But before jumping on board with Harvick winning again, let's find some logical reasons why he won't win.
The first reason is that his cars from the past two weeks at similar 1.5-mile tracks have nothing to do with the car he'll be using this week.
The next reason Harvick might not win is that he drives a Ford. His eight Cup wins at Phoenix were all in a Chevrolet. Last year, his first in a Ford, was the first time with no Phoenix wins after five straight seasons of seeing at least one Harvick win there. At one time from 2013-15, he won four Phoenix races in a row.
When he departed Richard Childress Racing after the 2013 season, which also had a Harvick Phoenix win, he still remained in a Chevrolet with Stewart Haas Racing and he won right away in his second start of the season at Phoenix. Last season was his first in a Ford, and he didn't win at Phoenix in either race and he didn't lead a single lap in either race.
Leading laps at Phoenix is a big deal for Harvick. It always happens, or at least always used to. He holds the track record leading 1,484 laps in 30 starts. It just didn't happen last season.
And it wasn't just Phoenix. He didn't win in his Ford on any of the two other tracks similar such as the 1-mile flat layout at New Hampshire and the 3/4-mile flat layout at Richmond. That's six races on three tracks he's loved his entire career and he only led 11 total laps.
It was like he performed poorly in those races, because he was sixth of better in four of them, but he definitely wasn't a dominator like he was in Chevy or like he's been the last two weeks in his Ford.
The cars haven't changed much from what we saw in the playoffs last season and its part of the reason why Harvick was expected to fare well at Atlanta and Las Vegas this year. He was a top-five finisher in four of his five playoff starts on 1.5-mile tracks.
We know his SHR Ford has the cookie cutter tracks figured out, but these flat tracks are another story and it's part of why I'm looking elsewhere to invest the most in Sunday's race with hopes that Harvick is favored so much that the effect of raising odds on other drivers is applied to balance the theoretic hold. He's way overpriced this week.
On these type of tracks, Joe Gibbs Racing closed out 2017 being the best with wins on three of the last four. Matt Kenseth won at Phoenix in the fall, a really cool farewell win, and then-rookie Erik Jones finished fourth. Jones is now driving the JGR No. 20 Kenseth won with.
Denny Hamlin led a race-high 193 laps in that race before Chase Elliott retaliated from a Martinsville incident and ended his day and championship hopes. Elliott finished second. Besides the solid Phoenix run, Hamlin also had a New Hampshire win in July and top-fives in both Richmond races.
“I’m obviously looking forward to Phoenix after a disappointing finish in Vegas," Hamlin said of his 17th-place finish last week. "It was an unforced error that ultimately cost us out there, but it’s behind us, and I’m ready to move forward. Our team has high hopes for this weekend (at Phoenix), and I think we can get back into the top-five where we started this season.”
Hamlin's only Phoenix win came in the spring of 2012, one of only three Toyotas to ever win a Cup race there.
Kyle Busch finished third in the spring Phoenix race last season and led a race-high 114 laps and he would also lead a race-high 187 laps before taking the checkers in the September New Hampshire race.
“We still have work to do there, but I definitely think we were headed in the right direction there last year in both races," Busch said of Phoenix where he was also seventh in the fall race. "We had a good enough position that we were able to finish well and transfer through to Homestead there last fall, with (Matt) Kenseth and Denny (Hamlin) having good cars there, as well. I’m looking forward to getting back out there and making some laps and hopefully having a good racecar with our Skittles Sweet Heat Camry."
Busch's only Phoenix win came in 2005 when he was driving a Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. It was his second career Cup win. Busch also has 10 Xfinity Series wins at Phoenix.
"For some reason, I’ve always run well there," Busch said. "I don’t know if it’s that I’m comfortable being back close to home on the West Coast, or what. I always have a little more fan support out there, as well."
Harvick's got the hot hand, but I'm looking elsewhere this week.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
2) #20 Erik Jones (20/1)
3) #42 Kyle Larson (8/1)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (15/1)
5) #4 Kevin Harvick (9/4)