Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Up to Speed: Previewing the Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

This time last year, Phoenix served as the last race before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold across the sports landscape, sending all of us, NASCAR included into our new normal.

A year later, with the effects of the pandemic still being felt, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to the Arizona desert to take on Phoenix Raceway and Sunday’s Instacart 500, in what could be a preview of the championship race when the 2021 season wraps up at the one-mile oval in November.

Through the first four races of the season, the Cup Series has seen four different winners, including two first-time winners. Should we get a fifth different winner, it would be the first time since 2017 that the season has opened with that many different winners.

Brad Keselowski will start on pole, still looking for his first win of the season, while last week’s winner, Kyle Larson, will start alongside him on the front row. Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, and William Byron will round out the remainder of the top-10 starters.

By the Numbers

What: Instacart 500, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 5 of 36

Where: Phoenix Raceway – Avondale, Arizona (Opened: 1964, first NASCAR Cup event was 1988)

When: Sunday, March 14

TV/Radio: FOX, 3:30 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90

Track Size: 1.0-mile oval

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

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

Stage Lengths: First stage – 75 laps/Second stage – 115 laps/Final stage – 122 laps

Pit Road Speed: 45 mph

Fuel Window: 85 to 90 laps

March 2020 Race Winner: Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford (Started 13th, 60 laps led)

November 2020 Race Winner: Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet (Started on pole, 153 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 Raceway:

  1. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford – 110.6
  2. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 108.4
  3. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 104.7
  4. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 98.4
  5. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 95.0
  6. Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet – 94.5
  7. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 93.1
  8. Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 93.0
  9. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 89.4
  10. Martin Truex Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 88.5

From the Driver’s Seat

“The restarts are crazy at Phoenix,” said William Byron. “You really fan out and have to find different lanes to run going into turn one. You can run the apron and down on the flat, which isn’t really common for us at a lot of places. I enjoy it and the other challenges Phoenix brings. It is a difficult track to pass on because cars are so close to each other on speed. It’s about track position and having a car that you can drive up underneath guys to make a pass. Usually, there’s a lot of green-flag runs, too. It’s a tough short track overall.

“I think you get good notes going to racetracks twice even if the conditions won’t be exactly the same when you come back. The biggest thing is we go back to Phoenix for the championship race, so it’s really that much more of an important race in that aspect. You know that whoever makes the final four will show up with a fast car, and I think that comes from the notes they have. You just need to go into this race and learn characteristics about the track. Hopefully, you have good speed and a good run to really capitalize on the situation.”

Last Time at Phoenix

Back in November, Phoenix served as the season finale for the first time, with the checkered flag bringing a first-time champion and the passing of the torch.

As Jimmie Johnson celebrated his final Cup Series start as a full-time driver, his Hendrick Motorsports college Chase Elliott was taking care of business at the front of the field with a dominating drive, leading close to half the race en route to the win over fellow championship contenders Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Denny Hamlin.

Johnson came home fifth as the best non-championship contending driver of the day, and celebrated the newly minted champion, with the two pulling up alongside each other in opposite directions and reaching out and high-fiving each other before going their separate ways. Truly a passing of the torch moment that the two champions were able to share.

“Oh, my gosh, to share a moment like that in Jimmie’s last race and to win and to lock the championship, those are moments you can only dream of. You know, and this is a dream. I’m just hoping I don’t ever wake up,” said Elliott.

“Today I feel like symbolized a lot of great things, and I feel like there’s a lot of things from today I’ll look back on in a week or a month or a year, and I’ll be like, dang, that was really cool.  That being one of them for sure.

“Jimmie and I have shared some really cool moments on track, and they’ve been in really big moments of my career.  The moment we shared after Watkins Glen, the road to that first win.  And then for the greatest of all time to be kind of hanging it up today and to win a championship on that day, I mean, that’s just a really cool thing.

“As a fan of his, number one, and as a person that’s looked up to Jimmie in many ways over the years, I’m not sure I could have dreamt that any better.”

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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.