When the Cup cars last raced in the Phoenix metro area, they graced the surface of what was known as ISM Raceway which joined names such as Phoenix International Raceway and even Jeff Gordon Raceway, when the four-time champion ran his final full-time race there, as a few names to define the track in its 50-plus year history.
Now as the track enters its 33rd year of hosting NASCAR races, the newly-renamed Phoenix Raceway, something new that harkens to the past, will be host to drivers blazing new paths, building legacies and reminiscing as the sun begins to set on their journey.
One team that has seen itself checking all of those boxes this season is Hendrick Motorsports. As no. 48 Jimmie Johnson begins his farewell to full-time Cup racing, with success, teammate no. 88 Alex Bowman is beginning to find himself as an early championship favorite for the first time in his career, while teammate no. 9 Chase Elliott continues to cement himself as NASCAR’s most popular driver. Left out of this conversation is teammate no. 24 William Byron but that’s not to worry for this weekend.
William Byron: Returning to the site of early success in search of good luck
Byron was fastest in first practice, outpacing Elliott by .149 seconds. Although Byron starts 17th in Sunday’s FanShield 500, this track has been good to Byron when running the low downforce package.
In his rookie season, Byron led 15 laps en route to a 12th place finish in the Spring 2018 race and followed that up with a ninth place finish in the Fall race. The two top 12 finishes were highlights in an otherwise forgettable rookie season and this weekend could do the same for Byron in the context of his season so far.
Byron ran well at Daytona and Las Vegas, spending time in the top 15 for at least 75% of his laps completed, but was involved in a crash with Ricky Stenhouse Jr at Daytona and cut a tire after a restart run-in with Matt DiBenedetto, causing finishes of 40th and 22nd respectively.
Byron will start 17th but given that his fastest laps in practice were run deep into his laps run, it’s likely Byron will show his speed in the long run Sunday.
Ryan Blaney: Looking to capitalize on early season success with better luck
With all the talk of luck in this week’s “What to watch for”, you would think we were heading to Las Vegas and surely no. 12 Ryan Blaney would be happy to head back to Vegas to see about doing the finish over.
Blaney was leading with six laps to go over a hard-charging Alex Bowman when a spin by Ross Chastain brought out a caution. Blaney pitted as numerous others didn’t and he found himself in the midst of an overtime incident that caused a tire problem which relegated him to an 11th place finish after leading 19 laps.
Last weekend at Auto Club Speedway, Blaney appeared to be on his way to a second or third-place finish until concerns about a tire possibly cording forced him to pit with three laps to go in the race. Blaney finished 19th, one lap down, after leading 54 laps, winning a stage and being one of the few drivers who looked likely to beat Alex Bowman.
Now Blaney returns to Phoenix, a track where Blaney finished third in both of the Phoenix races last season, including the Spring race where he led 94 laps. Blaney has also started on the pole in the November 2017 and March 2019 races and he led 11 laps in that November race.
With this in mind, what better place than Phoenix for Ryan Blaney to return to in search of some good luck this season?
Not to mention, Blaney signed a multi-year contract extension with Team Penske in a move that secures Blaney’s future in the Cup Series and with the team. This type of weight lifted off of a driver usually bodes well so it remains to be seen if the same will apply to Blaney.
Joe Gibbs Racing: Looking for fifth Phoenix win in last six race while searching for speed
The JGR quartet of no. 11 Denny Hamlin, no. 19 Martin Truex Jr, no. 20 Erik Jones and no. 18 Kyle Busch enter the fourth race of 2020 placed 7th, 13th, 18th and 19th in points respectively, which contrasts from a year prior where all four drivers were top 10 in points entering race four.
The JGR Toyotas have been spinning the wheels to start 2020 with Busch and Jones each scoring their first top 10 of the season last week at Auto Club Speedway. That’s not to say they haven’t had speed, as Hamlin won the Daytona 500 and has two top 10s while Truex has been a contender at Las Vegas and Auto Club Speedway before running into issues in stage three that took him out of contention.
Like Blaney, Phoenix is the perfect track for JGR to come back to at this point in the season when the team is looking to find glory.
JGR has won four of the last five Phoenix races and is looking for five out of six this weekend; something that hasn’t been done since 2007-09 when Hendrick Motorsports won six Phoenix races in a row with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin.
Lately, JGR has been like what Hendrick Motorsports from how strong their cars have been all the way down to having four cars, like Hendrick Motorsports.
All four of JGR’s Toyotas start in the top 12, with Hamlin starting third and the trio of Busch, Jones and Truex starting 10th through 12th.
Busch placed sixth and second in the first and second practices while Jones placed ninth in both practices, so their cars have speed. Whether that translates to speed in the race remains to be seen Sunday.
2020 FanShield 500: The return of the lower downforce package
Sunday’s FanShield 500 will be run with the lower downforce package that’s similar to a package run at Phoenix Raceway in the November 2018 race won by Kyle Busch.
For the 2019 Phoenix races, the spoiler was eight inches tall with a two-inch splitter overhang and 10.5 inch wings. For Sunday’s race and the NASCAR Championship race in November, the spoiler will be 2.75 inches tall with a quarter-inch splitter overhang and approximately two-inch wings.
The changes are dramatic but mark a return to a package that was praised by fans and drivers for the quality of racing it provided and how it brought the racing back into the drivers’ hands more.
What will bring the drivers more options is the application of the PJ1 traction compound along the driving line and won’t be as high up the track as before, per NASCAR.
The Xfinity Series drivers were able to race three AND four wide on restarts and maneuver the outside groove better as the race wore down so it’s likely we will see the same thing happen Sunday as drivers ramp up the aggressiveness and seek new ways to make up ground.
However, with a tire that provides more grip but more wear, drivers will have to be careful in going for the win.
Notable Playoff contenders:
No. 21 Matt DiBenedetto (eighth in points, +18 points above the cutline)
No. 17 Chris Buescher (11th in points, +13 points above the cutline)
No. 43 Bubba Wallace (17th in points, -1 behind 16th place no. 14 Clint Bowyer)
Rookie of the year race:
No. 8 Tyler Reddick (55 points)
No. 38 John Hunter Nemechek (-4 points behind Reddick)
No. 41 Cole Custer (-11)
No. 15 Brennan Poole (-21)
No. 95 Christopher Bell (-42)
No. 00 Quin Houff (-47)
Kevin Harvick looking for tenth Phoenix Raceway win and first since 2018 (best avg. finish of the league, 7.3), Truex and Byron each looking for their first top 10 of 2020.
Sunday’s FanShield 500 starts just after 3:30 PM EST (TV: FOX; Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Phoenix Raceway.