By David Morgan, Associate Editor
The start of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season has seen the Next Gen car put through its paces on a variety of tracks, now it heads to Phoenix Raceway and Sunday’s Ruoff Mortgage 500 for what could be its most important race yet.
The one-mile oval in the Arizona desert played host to a two-day test in late January, but there is still a cloud of uncertainty about how the car will race come Sunday, making the very limited track time available like gold for the drivers and teams to get their cars dialed in.
Add in the fact that the track serves as the season finale and championship race, the valuable data gained this weekend will go a long way in helping formulate a game plan for when the series returns in November with a title on the line.
By the Numbers
What: Ruoff Mortgage 500, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 4 of 36
Where: Phoenix Raceway – Avondale, Arizona (Opened: 1964, first NASCAR Cup event was 1988)
When: Sunday, March 13
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 – 60 laps/Second stage – 125 laps/Final stage – 127 laps
March 2021 Race Winner: Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 19 Toyota (Started 13th, 60 laps led)
November 2021 Race Winner: Kyle Larson – No. 5 Chevrolet (Started on pole, 107 laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Jimmie Johnson (25.147 seconds, 143.158 mph – November 13, 2015)
Top-10 Driver Ratings at Phoenix Raceway:
- Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford – 110.3
- Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 108.9
- Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 103.8
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 99.7
- Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 96.1
- Brad Keselowski – No. 6 Roush Fenway Keselowski Ford – 95.6
- Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 94.7
- Kurt Busch – No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota – 93.6
- Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 92.6
- Martin Truex Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 90.9
From the Driver’s Seat
“This weekend’s race at Phoenix Raceway is going to provide some really entertaining and exciting racing, I think,” said Tyler Reddick. “When we were out there for the test, we didn’t get to run a lot in traffic but that will be different on Sunday.
“We’ve seen such solid and good racing at all the tracks we’ve visited so far this season and it feels like Phoenix is going to be the perfect mix of all of them. This car is so challenging to drive and with the aerodynamics at Phoenix, practice is going to be crucial to see what kind of speed and car you’ve got. Qualifying is going to be really important too, you want to have a good starting position especially as the tires start to give throughout the first stage or two.
“My team has been working really hard each and every week and I think we’ll have a good game plan put together for this weekend and hopefully we’ll be able to run upfront and put on a good show.”
Last Time at Phoenix
Back in November, a champion was crowned at Phoenix, capping off a dominant season that saw Kyle Larson winning the race and taking home the title in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports.
A rundown of Larson’s final stats for the year would show him with 10 wins, 20 top-five finishes, 26 top-10 finishes, and an astounding 2581 laps led. Larson’s five wins in the Playoffs matches him with his hero Tony Stewart, who put up the same win total in his march toward the championship in 2011.
Even with such a dominating season, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Larson was going to walk away with the title in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. As the laps were winding down, it looked like the cards just weren’t in Larson’s favor to win the race or the championship.
Down the stretch, Martin Truex, Jr. led the way and seemed to be on autopilot toward the title, but when a debris caution flew late in the race, Larson had his second chance to fight it out with his championship rivals for the trophy.
A blazing-fast pit stop by the No. 5 team put Larson in the lead and the rest is history. With nothing but clean air in front of him, Larson was able to hold off Truex over the final 28 laps to win the race, bringing his story full circle as the newly minted champion.
“There were so many points in this race where I did not think we were going to win,” Larson said. “Without my pit crew on that last stop, we would not be standing right here. They are the true winners of this race. They are true champions. I’m just blessed to be a part of this group. Every single man or person, man and woman at Hendrick Motorsports, this win is for all of us, and every one of you.
“This is unbelievable. I’m speechless.”
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Saturday, March 12
- NASCAR Cup Series Practice (1:30 pm to 2:05 pm – FOX Sports 1)
- NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying (2:15 pm – FOX Sports 1)
Sunday, March 13
- Ruoff Mortgage 500 at Phoenix (3:30 pm – 312 laps, 312 miles (500 km) – FOX)