Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Up to Speed: Previewing the Can-Am 500 at Phoenix

By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor

The Round of 8 all comes down to this. After last week’s rain delayed race at Texas, the stage is set for the final race of the round to determine which drivers will move onto Homestead and which drivers will see their championship hopes vanish in the Valley of the Sun.

Phoenix has resided on the Cup Series schedule since 1988, but the track looks completely different than it did 28 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.

Of the six drivers still eligible to join Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards in the championship race at Homestead, just two points separate four of those drivers with the other two in must-win situations to be able to advance. With the points so close, it is anyone’s guess on which drivers will be able to survive and advance to the season finale.

By the Numbers

Opened: 1964 (first NASCAR Sprint Cup event was 1988)

Track Size: 1.0 mile oval

Banking: 10 to 11 degrees in Turns 1-2 and backstretch dogleg – Eight to nine degrees in Turns 3-4

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

Pit Road Speed: 45 mph

Fuel Window: 85 to 90 laps

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

November 2015 Race Winner: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – No. 88 Chevrolet (Started third, 22 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet (25.147 seconds, 143.158 mph – November 13, 2015)

Top-10 Driver Ratings at Phoenix:

  • Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 112.0
  • Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Chevrolet – 111.2
  • Chase Elliott – No. 24 Chevrolet – 101.0
  • Carl Edwards – No. 19 Toyota – 100.5
  • Kurt Busch – No. 41 Chevrolet – 98.7
  • Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 98.3
  • Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 95.2
  • Tony Stewart – No. 14 Chevrolet – 92.7
  • Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 92.0
  • Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 90.2

Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Standings:

  1. Jimmie Johnson (Martinsville Winner)
  2. Carl Edwards (Texas Winner)
  3. Joey Logano (+1 over Chase cut-off)
  4. Kyle Busch (+1)
  5. Matt Kenseth (-1)
  6. Denny Hamlin (-2)
  7. Kevin Harvick (-18)
  8. Kurt Busch (-34)

From the Driver’s Seat

“It seems like, each time we go back to Phoenix, the asphalt is getting a little bit older. It’s starting to get a little bit slicker, yet it still seems like you can stay out forever on tires. You are out there a long time on tires and the air pressures build up. We are going to work this time around on keeping the air pressure down and trying to make our long-run speed better,” said Kurt Busch.

“It’s got a great atmosphere there with turns one and two being much tighter than turns three and four. They reconfigured the dogleg on the back straightaway, which is a huge corner now. It opens up the ability to go way below the yellow line. Sometimes you see cars five-wide on the back straightaway. That is definitely a wild card in the mix there.”

Last Time at Phoenix

Though Kevin Harvick has made Phoenix his own personal playground as of late, the Good Sam 500 in March came down to a matter of inches for him to be able to continue his dominance in the desert.

Harvick looked to have the win within his grasp for the eighth time on the one mile oval, holding a decisive lead over second place Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as the laps wound down, but a blown tire by Kasey Kahne, the fifth driver to suffer tire issues on the day, brought out the final caution and bunched the field back up for one last shot at the driver the FOX Sports announcers have dubbed the “Cactus King.”

While the majority of the field came down pit road for service under the final caution, Harvick, Earnhardt, and Austin Dillon all elected to stay out on track. As the field circled under yellow, the race was pushed past its scheduled distance, setting the race to finish in overtime.

On the final restart, Harvick held steady in the lead, but Carl Edwards, with his fresh rubber, was coming like a freight train toward the lead, moving into second place. As Edwards closed in on Harvick heading through Turns 3 and 4 on the final lap, he was able to get underneath Harvick’s car to pull alongside entering the frontstretch. The two drivers would bounce of each other thrice more closing in on the finish line, with Harvick gaining a slight advantage at the last second to take the win, with a margin of victory of .010 seconds, the closest finish ever at Phoenix.

With the win, Harvick now has wins at Phoenix in six of the last eight visits to the track and eight total wins in the desert. Harvick’s win also gives Chevrolet six straight wins at Phoenix.

“I just like racing here,” said Harvick. “It’s just one of those places where I feel like I’ve been here enough times to where I can move around and find something to make our car work. I knew he (Edwards) was better through (Turns) 3 and 4. That was not the car that I wanted to see behind me. I knew I could beat him down there and I tried to protect the bottom in (Turns) 3 and 4 and I just missed the bottom with all the rubber build-up on the tires and everything. But, all in all, I knew I was going to be on defense down there. I got up too high and wasn’t able to stay on the bottom like I wanted to and then he got into me, like he should have, and I needed to get a good run off the corner and I was going to have to get into his door and it worked out, just barely. I just want to thank Jimmy John’s, Busch, Chevrolet, Mobil 1 and everybody at Stewart-Haas for everything that they do.”

“I should’ve wrecked him (laughter). No, those guys were doing a great job all day. They hung on with those tires but we were faster so I thought, ‘Man, I’ll just move him out of the way and get by.’ I just didn’t move him far enough and then he got up the door and I thought I was trying to time — I thought ‘I think he’s going to beat me.’ So, I tried to sideswipe him before he got there but I needed to be in front of his front tire. Anyway, just a fun race. Man, I wish we could’ve won that thing. Dave Rogers (crew chief) did a great job. I’ve got to thank Stanley. They’re onboard here. Hopefully everybody that damaged their stuff could use some Stanley Tools to fix it today. ARRIS, Toyota, TRD (Toyota Racing Development), Subway, Comcast, XFINITY, all of our sponsors. I wanted to win that thing but you win some and you lose some. It was a good race,” said Edwards of his runner-up finish.

Who to Watch

  • Jimmie Johnson – Though Johnson has struggled at times since Phoenix underwent its reconfiguration in 2011, the six-time series champion still tops the board statistically at Phoenix among active drivers. Johnson has four wins (2007, 2008 sweep, and 2009), as well as 15 top-five finishes, 19 top-10 finishes, three poles, 977 laps led, and an average finish of 7.8 in 26 starts.
  • Chase Elliott – Making his second start at Phoenix this weekend, Elliott is still looking for that elusive first win, but did show some speed at the track back in March. In that race, Elliott started 17th, but by the time the checkered flag flew, he had a top-10 in his back pocket courtesy of an eighth place finish.
  • Ryan Blaney – Like Elliott, Blaney is still looking for his first Cup Series win as well and ran well in his first start at Phoenix earlier this season. Blaney started the day in 12th place and finished with a 10th place result.
  • Kevin Harvick – There is no other way to describe Harvick’s recent performance at Phoenix other than to call it absolute domination. Since 2012, Harvick has finished outside the top-two just once, making him the odds on favorite this weekend to continue that very impressive streak and punch his ticket to Homestead. Career wise, Harvick has eight wins at the track (2006, 2007, 2012, 2013, 2014 sweep, 2015 and spring 2016), along with 12 top-five finishes, 16 top-10 finishes, one pole, 1484 laps led, and an average finish of 10.3 in 27 starts.
  • Denny Hamlin – Over the past handful of races, Hamlin has been hit or miss at Phoenix, but consistently over his career, he has finished in or around the top-10 more often than not. In 22 starts, Hamlin has one win (2012), 10 top-five finishes, 12 top-10 finishes, two poles, 441 laps led, and an average finish of 11.0.
  • Carl Edwards – Since winning at Phoenix in 2013, Edwards has been marginal at best in the races since then, but showed some strength in this spring’s race at the track in a photo finish with Kevin Harvick. Edwards will look to finish one place better this weekend as he comes off of his win at Texas last Sunday. In 23 starts, Edwards has two wins (2010 and 2013), seven top-five finishes, 12 top-10 finishes, three poles, 387 laps led, and an average finish of 12.3.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, November 11

  • NSCS Practice (1:30 pm to 2:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)
  • NSCS Qualifying (6:45 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Saturday November 12

  • NSCS Practice (3:00 pm to 3:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)
  • NSCS Final Practice (6:00 pm to 6:50 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Sunday, November 13

  • NSCS Good Sam 500 at Phoenix (2:30 pm – 312 laps, 312 miles – NBC)

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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.

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