Author's Note: The Instacart 500, hosted by Phoenix Raceway, is set for this Sunday, March 14th, at 3:30 PM EST. Tune in on Fox Sports 1, MRN radio, or SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90 to catch the action.
About The Track
Phoenix Raceway in Avondale Arizona. Its nickname is the “Desert Oddball” thanks to its unique layout and surroundings. Before each race, track officials also send out “snake wranglers” to round up rattle snakes that make the track and surrounding areas their home. This 1 mile, low-banked tri-oval offers wild 5 wide restarts and a fast pace race. Stages are broken down into 75 and 115, and the final 122 laps to make it a 312 lap race. This is a shorter race than most others as well, which means if teams are going to make car adjustments, they better do it early. Sunday's race track will also host the championship race at season’s end, so drivers this weekend will be looking to find that edge early to help them out later in the year.
Hendrick Flexing Their Muscles Early
This week we'll be taking a look at the resurgence of Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) as the NASCAR Cup Series continues to push on and we approach another big race in Phoenix this weekend. Most NASCAR fans think of HMS as Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson winning multiple championships, and after a dark period, HMS was recently able to reload and build with young talent. That paid off last year with Chase Elliott winning the Cup Series championship. HMS still had hiccups throughout the season - and that included 1.5 mile tracks - and if they wanted to be one of racing's top team, they had to make changes.
The big question for HMS going into this season surrounded who was going to race for this year and who was going to get an early jump into racing next year. Next year, in 2022, NASCAR will be using the Next Gen car, so setups in 2021 will no longer be relevant. Now I'm not saying that anyone is tanking this season because of this - far from it - but some teams and drivers might be allocating time and resources for next year that might take away from the current season. What I can guarantee though is that Hendrick is racing for this year. HMS has now won 2 out of the 4 races this year, posting recent back-to-back wins.
Reigning champ Chase Elliott has posted finishes of 2nd, 21st (late wreck), 14th and 13th this season as well, and he had a great car last week but took damage early on. In Elliott-like fashion, however, he battled back, but with 98 laps left he lost control of his car and did a 360 down the backstretch (luckily not hitting anyone). Elliott restarted 27th and was able to get a top-15 finish over the last 93 laps while also turning his the fastest laps of the first two Daytona races. Alex Bowman, on the other hand, has finishes of 35th (Daytona wreck while battling for the lead), 10th, 9th and 27th. Last week Bowman ran 66% of his laps inside the top 10 and was in 9th place before a flat tire with 16 laps remaining and was forced to pit.
After a winning easily at Homestead, William Byron has placed 26th, 33rd, and 8th, and his two poor finishes were due to being caught up in wrecks. Byron had a top car at Daytona before getting into the mix of the lap 16 massive wreck (finished 26th). At the road course with 11 laps left, Byron was also behind Martin Truex Jr when Truex Jr spun going into turn 1 and Byron had to swerve off the track to miss hitting anybody (finished 33rd). How smooth would Kyle Larson translate back into stock car racing after a season on dirt tracks? Everyone has found out early into this season. He has top 10 finishes in three of four races this year (10th, 4th and 1st), and his lone finish outside top 10 was at the road course when he wheel-hopped going into turn 1 with eight laps left and wrecked - he was sitting in 2nd place at the time.
The speed Hendrick has found over the last two weeks at 1.5 mile tracks should be concerning for opposing teams. Three of the last seven Cup Series playoff races are at 1.5 mile tracks, and two of those are in the next-to-last round - win and you’re in the Championship Four. Hendrick struggled last year at 1.5’s, ranking fourth among organizations in those 10 races after the sport resumed in May from COVID-19. Joe Gibbs Racing (3 wins), Team Penske (2) and Stewart-Haas Racing (2) each had more wins in those 10 races last year than Hendrick (1), with Hendrick also ranking behind those teams in top 5’s and top 10’s.
Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) also had nearly three times as many top 5’s as Hendrick’s six, as well as nearly twice as many top 10s as Hendrick’s 13. Fast forward to this year, however, and after two 1.5 mile races, Hendrick has 2 wins, 3 top 5’s and 5 top 10 finishes. At Homestead, two Hendrick cars ran over half their laps inside the top 5. Las Vegas was the Larson show, sure, but Byron ran just under half of his laps inside the top 5 too. All HMS drivers have actually run a significant amount of their laps inside the top 10 this season, and when Elliott runs a mistake-free race, lookout, because he will be dominant. Bowman seems to find himself in the right spot late in the races, too, as this HMS team is poised to have a great 2021.