Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – Sunday’s Ruoff Mortgage 500 at Phoenix Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) marks the NASCAR Cup Series Next Gen car’s one-mile competitive debut. And three races into the season, the car – and the racing it’s produced – has received superlative reviews.
There have been three different race winners – Austin Cindric (Daytona), Kyle Larson (California) and Alex Bowman (Las Vegas) – and three different pole winners – Larson, Cindric and Christopher Bell. And the championship standings certainly reflect an intense parity embraced by the teams and the fans.
Not only do a mere 11 points separate the first five drivers in the series’ rankings, but the top-10 drivers in the standings are separated by 35 points or less. Fittingly, last year’s two Phoenix race winners lead the title run. Martin Truex Jr., defending winner of this weekend’s Spring race, trails Phoenix’s Fall championship-deciding race winner Larson by a mere six points.
Two other former series champions, Joey Logano (-9) and Kyle Busch (-11) are also in the thick of the early title run – ranked third and fifth, respectively. Sunoco rookie Austin Cindric (-10), who won the season-opening Daytona 500 is ranked fourth in the championship driver standings. And Aric Almirola is sixth in the title run, 16 points behind Larson and the only driver on the year with top-10 finishes in all three races.
Bubba Wallace (10th) and Erik Jones (15th) are right in the mix early-on as well – names not typically atop the standings at this point of the season in previous years.
Conversely, Denny Hamlin – part of the Championship 4 Round in 2021 – has had a rough start to the season with a two DNFs in three races – including last week at Las Vegas – and sits 30th in the standings, 75 points behind Larson. And Sunoco rookie Harrison Burton, a NASCAR Xfinity Series standout who is now driving the famed Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford, is also having a rough learning curve with two DNFs in the first three races. He’s 32nd in points.
“Everyone on the team is very confident,” Hamlin reassured. “We know what we’re capable of and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota are doing a great job giving us cars capable of running up front. It’s just a matter of getting to the finish without anything crazy happening and unfortunately, that has been easier said than done so far. At the end of the day, we just have to go out and execute and we’ll be fine.”
The one-mile Phoenix oval – which was massively remodeled and redesigned only three years ago – will be an important “next” test of the Next Gen car, which has produced ultra-competitive events at the Daytona 2.5-mile superspeedway, the 2-mile California oval and the 1.5-mile Las Vegas track.
And of course, there’s the extra motivation of figuring out the track that will play host to the Championship race in November.
Since the Phoenix track’s remodel, no driver has more than one win on it. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick has a record nine victories at Phoenix – three times the victories as anyone else in the field – but hasn’t won there since 2018.
Three-time winner Kyle Busch and two-time winners Logano and Hamlin are the only other multi-time Phoenix champs among active drivers.
Phoenix will be a true test for Xfinity Series frontrunners
For the first time in nearly two years, Noah Gragson shows up to race as the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship points leader. The driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet took the lead last week with his runner-up finish to Ty Gibbs at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He has three top-three finishes in the season’s opening three races including runner-up showings in the last two.
He heads to the Phoenix Raceway one-miler for Saturday’s United Rentals 200 (4:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a 17-point advantage on last week’s Las Vegas winner, 19-year-old Ty Gibbs. Gragson, whose 89 laps led on the season is tops in the series, has fared well at Phoenix, however, he’s still looking for his first trophy. Gragson’s previous best showing was runner-up in the 2020 season finale there. He suffered a DNF in this race last year.
Gibbs, whose win last week was his fifth in only 21 Xfinity Series starts, finished runner-up in his only previous Phoenix start – this race last year. His win at Las Vegas was his first top-10 finish of 2022.
The veteran Kaulig Racing driver A.J. Allmendinger, who only ran his first full Xfinity Series season last year, is again showing early on that he is championship material. He has top-10 finishes in all three races with a best effort of runner-up in the Daytona season-opener and is ranked third in points, 21 points behind Gragson and four off Gibbs. His only top-five finish in four Xfinity starts at Phoenix was fifth place in this race last year. It marked a 13-year span between series starts at the track for him.
Certainly these championship frontrunners can expect competition from the reigning series champion, Daniel Hemric. The popular 31-year-old Kaulig Racing driver has an impressive five top-10 finishes in eight Phoenix stars, including a runner-up finish and last November’s big win – the first NASCAR national series victory of his career. Hemric also scored his first top-10 of the season at Las Vegas (third place). He’s currently sixth in the championship standings – 41 points behind Gragson in a tight early season points battle.
Justin Allgaier is the only multi-time Phoenix Raceway winner among the fulltime Xfinity Series drivers this weekend. He scored wins in 2017 and 2019 and has 15 top-10 finishes in his 23 career starts with 493 laps led at the one-mile track – most among active series drivers. He shows up in Phoenix ranked fourth with top-10 finishes in all three races, including a best of fifth at both Daytona and Las Vegas.
The only other previous Phoenix Raceway winner among the Xfinity Series championship contenders is 25-year-old Brandon Jones. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has five top-10 finishes in 12 career starts – including that 2020 win in this spring race. He’s coming off his first top-10 of the season, a 10th-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last Saturday.
Kyle Busch, who holds a record 11 Xfinity Series wins at the Phoenix Raceway, but will not be racing this week. Former Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne will be making his second start of the season in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. He finished third at California two weeks ago. And John Hunter Nemechek, a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship contender, will be driving the No. 26 Sam Hunt Racing Toyota for the second consecutive weekend. He finished 12th last week.