By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
New name, still the same old Phoenix. For now.
After the kickoff to the West Coast swing last weekend in Las Vegas culminated in a second straight domination by Kevin Harvick, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Phoenix this weekend to take on the TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway.
Phoenix has resided on the Cup Series schedule since 1988, but the track looks completely different than it did 30 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.
This weekend marks the last time the Cup Series will race on the current configuration as the track’s $178 million revitalization project will come to a completion before the series returns for their second date in November.
Among the changes are new grandstands that are being built alongside the current Bobby Allison grandstand in Turn 1 and will extend through Turn 2 and up to the dogleg on the backstretch. Once the new grandstands are completed, the existing grandstands that stretch down the length of the current frontstretch will be torn down.
As a result of the seating being shifted into current Turns 1 and 2, the start/finish line will also be moved from its current position on the frontstretch to between current Turn 2 and the dogleg.
With all of the changes in progress at the track, the drivers will get to have one final hurrah on the desert mile before the changes are finalized.
By the Numbers
What: TicketGuardian 500, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 4 of 36
Where: ISM Raceway – Avondale, Arizona (Opened: 1964, first NASCAR Cup event was 1988)
When: Sunday, March 11
TV/Radio: FOX, 3:30 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90
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)
Stage Lengths: First two stages – 75 laps each, Final stage – 162 laps
Pit Road Speed: 45 mph
Fuel Window: 85 to 90 laps
March 2017 Race Winner: Ryan Newman – No. 31 Chevrolet (Started 22nd, six laps led)
November 2017 Race Winner: Matt Kenseth (Started seventh, 62 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:
- Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 110.2
- Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet – 109.1
- Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 109.0
- Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 99.6
- Erik Jones – No. 20 Toyota – 98.0
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 96.0
- Kurt Busch – No. 41 Ford – 95.7
- Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 93.0
- Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 91.3
- Kyle Larson – No. 42 Chevrolet – 90.9
From the Driver’s Seat
“Phoenix is a very unique short track because it’s very fast,” said Aric Almirola. “Ever since the repave, it has been one of the short tracks that honestly races like a mile-and-a-half more than it does a short track. It’s a fun racetrack to race at, but it’s definitely different from a Richmond-, Martinsville- or Bristol-type of short track.
“You have to have everything at Phoenix. You have to have downforce, grip in your car and good brakes. You have to make sure your car turns well across the center of turns one and two, which is a sharp, banked corner. And then you have turns three and four, which are really fast and sweeping and flat. You’ve got to have a car that’s versatile and is a good compromise for both corners.”
Last Time at Phoenix
The old man showed he has still got it. In what was likely his final race at Phoenix, Matt Kenseth took it to the youngsters, showing them he has still got plenty in the tank when it comes to driving a race car.
After announcing that he wouldn’t be returning to the cockpit in 2018, Kenseth came out at Phoenix with guns ablazing, scoring an emotional win by passing Chase Elliott with 10 laps to go en route to the 39th win of his career. A usually stoic Kenseth then got out of his car with both fists in the air and pointed skyward before climbing down with tears in his eyes, showing just how much the win meant to him.
“I don’t know what to say except thank the Lord,” said Kenseth. “It’s been an amazing journey and I know I’m a big baby right now. Just have one race left and everybody dreams about going out a winner. We won today and nobody can take that away from us. That was a heck of a battle with Chase (Elliott) there. I have to thank Circle K, Toyota, DeWalt and all our partners. Thanks to JGR, it’s been a great five years. It’s been quite the journey in this 20.
“It couldn’t be any sweeter. I just don’t know how else to explain it, you know? You always feel like you can get the job done, but, you know, if you’ve got a big enough sample size of numbers, numbers don’t really lie, so we needed to go out and get the job done and get us a win and we were able to do that today, so we’ve got one more race left and, like I said, great way to go out.”
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Friday, March 9
- MENCS Practice (12:35 pm to 1:25 pm – FOX Sports 1)
- MENCS Qualifying (5:15 pm – FOX Sports 1)
Saturday, March 10
- MENCS Practice (12:05 pm to 12:55 pm – FOX Sports 1)
- MENCS Final Practice (2:30 pm to 3:20 pm – FOX Sports 1)
Sunday, March 11
- MENCS TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway (3:30 pm – 312 laps, 312 miles – FOX)