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As the NASCAR Cup Series gathers at Phoenix Raceway for the running of the Ruoff Mortgage 500, it’s been just four months since Kyle Larson was crowned champion. His victory here last November was the cherry on top of an improbable comeback, complete after muttering a racial slur in an online platform led to his firing from Chip Ganassi Racing and threatened to derail his racing career.
Rick Hendrick picked Larson up the scrap heap in October 2020 and since then, both owner and driver have taken off like a rocket ship. Hendrick Motorsports won the Cup title two weeks later with Chase Elliott, had four drivers in championship contention last year and shows no signs of slowing with the sport’s new Next Gen chassis. Larson has already clocked in a victory, winning at Auto Club Speedway two weeks ago before HMS teammate Alex Bowman outdueled him at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last Sunday.
Will Phoenix give NASCAR more of the same? Since the one-mile flat track was awarded the playoff finale in 2020, the spring race winner (Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr.) has qualified for the Championship 4 that same year. Expect the heavyweights to keep throwing punches here as this race is always circled on the calendar for postseason prep.
Early returns on the Next Gen, meanwhile, have been great from a fan perspective. There’s been highly competitive racing, action delivered with cars that are difficult to drive and can spin at a moment’s notice. Two overtime finishes have been the icing on top as all three races have had green-flag restarts kick off within their final five laps.
Phoenix should help add to that parity: Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota have all won Cup races here within the last two seasons. Expect a brawl among the sport’s top three powerhouses of Team Penske (Ford), HMS (Chevrolet) and Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) who combined to put all 11 of their drivers inside the playoffs in 2021.
Keep an eye on three drivers from that group this weekend who have dug themselves an early hole. Three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin crashed out of the season opener and has yet to score a top-10 finish all season; he qualified for this week on the outside pole. Last week’s pole-sitter and JGR teammate Christopher Bell joins him outside the top 25 in points.
Then, there’s William Byron, who looked to have the pole at Phoenix before winding up third. Bowman’s Vegas win shone the light on how far Byron has fallen behind his trio of HMS teammates, starting off ’22 with a pair of crashes before recovering for fifth at LVMS.
Phoenix is only a one-mile tri-oval but often runs like an intermediate, lending itself to long green-flag runs. So far, the Next Gen has bucked that trend, posting a dozen caution flags apiece the last two weeks. Will this weekend finally be the time drivers settle in after a flurry of incidents?
For Larson and Bowman, they’re already playing with house money as HMS can already focus on the 10-race playoff stint come September. We’ll see if anyone else can stake a claim this Sunday to challenge their two-year reign at the top.
Ruoff Mortgage 500
Date: Sunday, March 13
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Track: Phoenix Raceway (Avon, Ariz.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
What I Think
I’m going with Ryan Blaney to assert himself early in the season with his first Phoenix victory.