March 6, 2019
By Micah Roberts
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There are 36 cars entered for Sunday's TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, but the main story this weekend is about two former Cup Champions going toe-to-toe for track supremacy. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch each won on the one-mile layout at Phoenix last season and also dominated on the two other similar flat tracks.
“When we go to Phoenix, we are always going for the win," Harvick said. "That’s been a great racetrack for me, personally, and since I’ve been at SHR, it’s become statistically one of our best racetracks as far as win counts go. It’s definitely a racetrack that we circle every year where we think we should have an opportunity to win.”
Harvick will be looking to expand upon his track record of nine Cup wins at Phoenix and join five other drivers in NASCAR history who have 10 wins at a single track. Richard Petty did it at five tracks, Darrell Waltrip did it at three tracks and David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson have done it at one place each. That's some serious company he's on the brink of joining.
He's won at Phoenix seven of his last 13 starts which is part of the reason the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook posted him as a +225 favorite. The worst finish in his last 11 Phoenix starts was sixth place mixed in with 10 top-fives. The crazy thing about his domination in the desert is that he's been with two different organization and two different manufacturers along the way while also going through several different rules packages for the cars. The one constant has been Harvick being the driver to beat.
Now he's got another rules package to deal with this weekend, one different from what we saw the last two weeks when it debuted on the 1.5-mile tracks of Atlanta and Las Vegas. What are the differences?
“Phoenix is basically the same body, but you don’t have the drag ducts in the front," Harvick's crew chief Rodney Childers said. "You’ll have brake ducts going to your front routers and front calipers. Then, of course, you have the 750-horsepower engine at Phoenix instead of the 550 horsepower that we had at Vegas. A little bit more downforce – the cars are built for downforce and a little bit more power.”
The taller spoiler will also create more downforce and reports from a test at Phoenix last fall show that power is restricted from what they've been used to, but the response time on the throttle will be much quicker than what they used the past two weeks.
It should be interesting to watch unfold. There's still a bit of uncertainty that perhaps the new package closes that gap Harvick has created these past years. If looking at the Superbook odds to win, a place that has to be correct more than most because they're taking wagers on all the drivers and can lose cash if wrong, they're treating their odds almost the same as last season, which includes Kyle Busch the second-favorite at 7-to-2 odds. Busch won at Phoenix last fall leading a race-high 117 laps. He's also won there 10 times in the Xfinity Series.
"For some reason, I’ve always run well there," Busch said of Phoenix. "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. As for the track itself, you’ve always had two distinctly different corners at Phoenix, which makes it fun and challenging all at the same time.”
His last Cup win before November was as a rookie in 2005 while driving for Hendrick Motorsports, the first season the Car of Tomorrow was unveiled. In between then and now, it's been mostly Harvick, but the tide turned a little bit last season in favor of Busch. Both grabbed wins at Phoenix, but on the tracks that require similar set-ups and always correlate well, Busch was better with a sweep at Richmond. Five races with similar set-ups and Busch won three of them and was runner-up in the two he didn't win, just behind Harvick at Phoenix in the spring and New Hampshire.
With two drivers being such short favorites to win, the SuperBook has to increase the odds on the others to balance their desired theoretic hold percentage around 28 percent. There's a couple of drivers that stand out based on their performance last season at Phoenix, Richmond and New Hampshire. One of those is Martin Truex Jr. at 10/1 odds.
“We are looking forward to getting to Phoenix this weekend,’’ said Truex, who was fifth in this race last season. “Regardless of what aero package we run there, you’re always looking for the same things from the car. You’ve got to turn in the center and be able to have really good drive off.
“We’ve had some good runs there the past few years – obviously winning the pole last year and being upfront leading laps. It will be fun to get to our first sort of short track of the year and see where we’re at there after a couple of 1.5-mile tracks.”
Truex led 121 laps at Richmond in the spring (14th) and led 163 laps there in the fall before finishing third. Cole Pearn is still his crew chief and I'm sure his notes are still good as well as adding what was gained from the Phoenix test by teammate Denny Hamlin.
Aric Almirola has the luxury of shared notes with his teammate Harvick and last season they were dialed in on these tracks, especially in the second half of the season where he was third at New Hampshire, fifth at Richmond and fourth at Phoenix. He's getting 20/1 odds this week.
Hamlin won at Phoenix in 2012 and is 15/1 to win this week and knows what it will take to win at Phoenix this week.
“We had a couple tough pit stops last weekend in Las Vegas that set us back, and we just needed a little more speed to get those spots back," Hamlin said. "We will have to be at our best from start to finish in Phoenix, and the entire team is working hard and will be ready for the challenge that awaits us.”
Hamlin has always been at his best on flat tracks and with a win already this season he can be more aggressive of he chooses. He was fourth in this race last season leading 33 laps.
Another driver to consider is Chase Elliott at 10/1 odds. He had top-fives in four of the five races on similar flat tracks last season.
It's probably a bad idea to leave the Penske Mustangs out of my betting equation this week after winning the last two races using the new package, but I'm looking at the Stewart-Haas Racing teammates of Daniel Suarez (60/1) and Clint Bowyer (25/1) more.
And the real bold move this week would be taking a shot with William Byron at 100/1 odds, who was ninth and 12th at Phoenix last season and won an Xfinity Series race there in 2017.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #18 Kyle Busch (7/2)
2) #4 Kevin Harvick (9/4)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (15/1)
4) #10 Aric Almirola (20/1)
5) #19 Martin Truex Jr. (10/1)