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Can-Am 500 Preview

Phillip Bennetzen

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And then there were two.

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Kevin Harvick joins Joey Logano in Miami via this Sunday’s win at Texas thus leaving two spots open for the final four. With one race left in the round of 8, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano sit in guaranteed seats with Kyle Busch (+28) and Martin Truex Jr (+25) in fairly healthy spots headed for Florida. Trailing behind Truex is Kurt Busch (-25) who could slip in if either of his brother or Martin slip up while Chase Elliott (-39), Aric Almirola (-57), and Clint Bowyer (-73) all need wins to race for the Cup championship. Because of the points standings, we know that one of three drivers (Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr, Kurt Busch) will at least qualify via points in the fourth spot and possibly two if Logano or Harvick should win.

That race this Sunday is the familiar grounds of Phoenix International Raceway, er… ISM Raceway. With a name change also comes several millions of dollars of upgrades to the track from fan enjoyment in the pits, improved experience in the seats, better amenities for the press (the way Jeff Gluck and Bob Pockrass talk about the place, it sounded like covering a baseball game from Yankees Stadium mid-1920’s), as well as track changes that may go under the nose of most fantasy players. It’s these changes that we need to address before we ever talk about stats and metrics because these adjustments may make quite a difference come Sunday afternoon.

Pictured on the left is the old Phoenix International Raceway layout that you will fondly remember that was reminiscent of a track designed to be raced inversely. The start-finish line was laid out on the straightaway whereas most oval straightaways are on the opposite side of the track connecting turns two and three. On the flip side, the curved part of the track that would normally connect turns one to four was the backstretch of the track and the curve itself was almost like an inverse dogleg. Furthermore, like the front stretch at Indianapolis, pit road ran parallel to it giving drivers even more of an impotence to spend as little time on pit road as possible. By all means, it was quirky but it was its uniqueness that helped make it an interesting race. As the venerable Colin Cowherd once said about the run and gun Phoenix Suns of the late 2000’s, if you can’t be good you can at least be interesting.

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Now fast forward through the Spring race that saw Kevin Harvick win after Kyle Busch led the majority of the 267 laps (remember the laps are calculated using kilometers, I told you this place is quirky) and ISM begins its renovation process. Practically every square inch inside and outside of the track is demolished and ISM reopens this weekend just in time for the final race before the Championship is settled in both Cup and Xfinity series. Listed in the graph on the right are the major changes but the two we need to worry about are (A) the realignment of pit road and (B) the repositioning of the start-finish line. The new ISM Raceway pit road is very similar to Martinsville in its shape and now places an importance on qualifying well to ensure you’re closer to the exit and not having to negotiate traffic in these new corners that hug the new fan zone. If you’ll compare the start-finish lines of the old layout to this new one you’ll immediately notice the difference. Whereas drivers would race to the end down the straightaway as they came off what used to be turn four, now drivers will essentially race through turn four in the new alignment. Talladega is the only other track I can think of that doesn’t have a start-finish line directly in the middle of the grandstands, but even then, Dega can’t compare to what ISM has done here placing the finish line immediately after a turn. Obviously, this should create some exciting racing and just exponentially increase the chances of a last-lap wreck as the temptation to bump the leader in that last turn (cough, cough Joey Logano) will be ever so strong especially if its a driver who needs a win to advance to Miami for the championship. I guess in a way it’s like the final dogleg of the Charlotte Roval, you add it to the track with the idea that it could add excitement to the overall racing and find yourself winking at everyone who questions whether it might affect the final lap of the race. If no one is close to the leader then it’s no big deal but if someone is then people will probably be talking about your event past the waving of the checkered flag. The impact of pit road we can project, however, the new start-finish line is just nitrogen floating through the atmosphere. We’ll know it when we see it.

Something else of note is that even though ISM could have easily played with the banking in the turns they have left them alone which “should” mean that the drivers who were good here in the past should continue their winning ways. However, professional athletes can become mental midgets at the slightest change in routines and these changes could very well humble a driver who had this place fairly figured out (Chase Elliott) while turning a bad driver (Jimmie Johnson) into a great one because the place finally races like a flat, one-mile long, intermediate track. Just for kicks and grins let’s say that ISM races a lot like the old Phoenix layout, what makes the most logical sense, what drivers should we be targeting pre-practice?

Kyle Busch – excluding Alex Bowman’s Superman effort from the Fall of 2016, no other driver has been as dominant at Phoenix as Kyle Busch has been in the short term (Spring 2016 to now). While he has no wins to back up this endorsement, Kyle has managed to average a finish of 3.6 despite no wins with 63.4 laps led in the past five Phoenix races. It is a bit worrying that Kyle has not been his dominant self during this third round but as long as he gets out front he’ll be tough to reel in which has been his bugaboo – starting or racing to the lead.

Kevin Harvick – there was a time you couldn’t utter Phoenix without mentioning Harvick in the same sentence. With nine wins overall, most among all drivers at Phoenix and five more than second-place Jimmie Johnson, Kevin went on a torrid pace with seven wins out of nine straight Phoenix races including four in a row from the Fall of 2013 to the Spring of 2015. However, Goodyear messed with the tire compounds and suddenly Phoenix had found Harvick’s Kryptonite. Happy was still running well but nowhere near the dominance we were accustomed to but then we returned to Phoenix earlier this Spring and Harvick found his way back to victory lane. Gauging Harvick’s motivation is tough because the #4 team may find it more efficacious to prepare for Miami instead of spinning their wheels at ISM but this is Happy’s best track and he may approach Sunday in a nothing left to lose game plan. Plus, with a win, he can keep his three teammates plus Chase Elliott from advancing to the final four or on the flip side, provided Kurt is doing well and Kyle or Martin is racing poorly, eliminate one of his main contenders from the final grouping.

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Chase Elliott – Awesome Bill from Dawsonville found success at Phoenix in the second race ever run here in the Cup circuit all the way back in 1989 but never returned to victory lane. Fast forward nearly thirty years and we nearly saw Chase take the checkered flag here as well before getting run down by a faster Matt Kenseth last Fall. Beyond that fateful Phoenix race that saw Denny Hamlin get his comeuppance, Chase has run strong at Phoenix with an average finish of 6.8 matched by an average running position of 6.2. When you compare this to Chase’s average finish of 5th at similar tracks, just trailing Kyle Busch (2nd) and Kevin Harvick (4th), it places Elliott as a clear favorite on our radars. Chase is in such a points hole that he has to win to move on and the desperation could either be a marvelous thing to behold or the Hindenberg burning on live television.

Denny Hamlin has run fairly well at Phoenix and is sorta known for his short track prowess, plus he’d love to get off his winless streak snide before the end of the season. Martin Truex Jr oddly has not been that good at Phoenix with just an average finish of 14.6 since 2016 but that number does include two top-five finishes and is skewed by a single DNF. Team Penske is another odd team to see here at ISM with both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski average finishes in the teens over the past five races although Joey does have a win next to his name – his only top ten finish in the past five races. Finally, among our contenders is Kyle Larson who qualifies strongly (3.6) but manages to turn that into a 15th place finish on average and only 56.20% of the race spent racing in the top fifteen. Imagine a flat track not suiting the racing style of Kyle Larson, yeah, crazy.

Sunday afternoon will be a bit of an experiment, odd how many times these experiments end up as the final race in a series of the playoffs, and practice should be the key we need to help make sense of rational expectations. Regardless, I look forward to Sunday afternoon and seeing what kind of excitement and intrigue this new layout creates and you should too.

Phill Bennetzen is a father, husband, and Catholic as well as a self-professed annoying fitness guy. Phill heads up NASCAR content at Awesemo.com. You can contact Phill by emailing [email protected].

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