Photo: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images

Up to Speed: Camping World 500 at Phoenix Preview

By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor

After the kickoff to the West Coast swing last weekend in Las Vegas culminated in a victory by Martin Truex, Jr. to mark the third different winner in the first three races of the season and also featured a post-race pit road brawl, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to the Valley of the Sun this weekend to take on the Camping World 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Phoenix has resided on the Cup Series schedule since 1988, but the track looks completely different than it did 29 years ago, having undergone a reconfiguration back in 2011. The reconfiguration added progressive banking to the turns and also involved a complete redesign of the backstretch, which created a more severe dogleg with 10 to 11 degree progressive banking.

The new dogleg on the backstretch also left a large paved area where the old track used to run and that feature lends itself to drivers cutting the corner to try and make passes and make up time. The results of that have about a 50/50 success/failure rate as some drivers can make great moves through there to advance their positions, while others end up with a wadded up racecar.

By the Numbers

Opened: 1964 (First Cup Series race: 1988; Reconfigured: 2011)

Track Size: 1.0 mile oval (Banking: 10-11 degrees in turns 1-2 and backstretch dogleg; 8-9 degrees in turns 3-4)

Race Length: 312 laps, 312 miles (500 km)

Stage Lengths:  Stage 1 and 2: 75 laps; Final stage: 162 laps

Pit Road Speed: 45 mph

Fuel Window: 85-90 laps

March 2016 Race Winner: Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – Started 18th, 139 laps led

November 2016 Race Winner: Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – Started fourth, 58 laps led

Track Qualifying Record: Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet (143.158 mph, 25.147 seconds – 11/13/15)

Top-10 Driver Ratings at Phoenix:

  • Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 111.2
  • Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 110.7
  • Chase Elliott – No. 24 Chevrolet – 103.9
  • Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 98.4
  • Kurt Busch – No. 41 Ford – 98.3
  • Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 95.6
  • Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 92.4
  • Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 92.4
  • Matt Kenseth – No. 20 Toyota – 89.0
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – No. 88 Chevrolet – 88.7

From the Driver’s Seat

“Phoenix is a really flat racetrack where you want to have the freshest tires possible, but track position is really important,” said Kevin Harvick. “A lot of what happens at Phoenix depends on the weather and how hot it is – how much (tire) fall-off and how you have to manage track position throughout the day. The cooler the day is, the more you have to manage your track position. The hotter the day, the more you have to manage the fall-off. Better-handling cars will have a little easier time getting through the field.”

Last Time at Phoenix

The last time the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series visited Phoenix, the fate of the drivers vying for a spot in the Championship Four was on the line, but it was a relief driver who nearly stole the show away from the Cup Series regulars.

Alex Bowman, who was filling in for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., started the race from the pole and proceeded to lead 194 laps on the day.

When a caution flew in the closing laps for a single car spin by Michael McDowell, Bowman and Matt Kenseth lined up on the front row for the ensuing restart. Kenseth got the jump on Bowman, who was trying to hold off a charge from Kyle Busch, but when the two got down to Turn 1, calamity ensued. Bowman was as low as he could be on the track as Kenseth cut down, causing the two to make contact, which sent Kenseth spinning into the outside wall and dropping Bowman to fifth place.

Joey Logano took command of the race as a result of the collision between the two frontrunners and held on for the win, his first at Phoenix, which punched his ticket to the championship race at Homestead.

“It was incredible. What a fun race. That last restart was crazy. I knew it was going to be and there were a ton of scenarios playing out with the 4 and 18 and myself and the restart before that with the 20 up there. Everyone was racing for a championship. This wasn’t just a race. This was for a shot at the championship next week. The 22 car is going there and we have a hell of a shot at it. I couldn’t be more proud of the team executing today under pressure. There is no way you could put more pressure on them then they had today. I couldn’t be prouder of them for giving me the opportunity to do what I can on that last restart,” said Logano.

“I’m not sure if he thought he was clear,” said Bowman. “Obviously, it’s really unfortunate, you never want to ruin a Chase guy’s day like that. I would have rather just raced him for the win. Obviously, it ruined our day too. Really unfortunate. We had a run on him and the 18 jacked me up and got me really loose on entry, but I was up against the inside wall when him and I made contact. So, I don’t know if his spotter cleared him or what there. It’s just unfortunate. I hate that for Matt. Obviously, very unintentional, but I’ve got to thank everyone at Hendrick Motorsports. Very thankful to be here and have such a strong day in my home state.”

“I’m here to win races. I don’t have anything to do. I’ve got nothing to lose besides try to win races, so if it would have come down to the last corner, I for sure would have moved him, but you never want to wreck somebody like that. Obviously, that sucks, but definitely just here to race and here to win.”

Who to Watch

  • Chase Elliott – Still chasing his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win, Chase Elliott heads to Phoenix for the third time in his career having notched top-10 finishes in his first two starts. Elliott could very well break through this weekend with a trip to victory lane.
  • Jimmie Johnson – Phoenix hasn’t been too kind to Jimmie Johnson in recent years with only one top-five finish in the last five starts, but the No. 48 team is never to be counted out. In his 27 starts, Johnson has four wins (2007, 2008 sweep, and 2009), 15 top-five finishes, 19 top-10 finishes, three poles, 990 laps led, and an average finish of 9.0.
  • Ryan Blaney – Much like Elliott, Blaney is still looking for his first win in the Cup Series, but heads to Phoenix for the third time having scored two top-10 finishes in his first two races at the track last season.
  • Kevin Harvick – Phoenix has been Harvick’s playground throughout his career, having scored eight wins (2006 sweep, 2012, 2013, 2014 sweep, 2015, and 2016) in 28 starts, including the last three spring races and six of the last nine races. Along with the eight wins, Harvick has 13 top-five finishes, 17 top-10 finishes, one pole, 1484 laps led, and an average finish of 10.0.
  • Denny Hamlin – Hamlin has yet to win in 2017, but Phoenix could be the place he nabs his first win of the year. Hamlin has one win at Phoenix in his career (2012), 10 top-five finishes, 13 top-10 finishes (four of the last five races), two poles, 445 laps led, and an average finish of 10.9 in 23 starts.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, March 17

  • MENCS Practice (2:00 pm to 3:25 pm – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Qualifying (7:45 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Saturday, March 18

  • MENCS Practice (Noon to 12:55 pm – FOX Sports 2)
  • MENCS Final Practice (2:30 pm to 3:20 pm – FOX Sports 2)

Sunday, March 19

  • MENCS Camping World 500 (3:30 pm – 312 laps, 312 miles – FOX)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.