Race Preview: Instacart 500

With four races down and four different winners in the NASCAR Cup Series, the greatest stock car drivers in the world will head to the one-mile Phoenix Raceway in the Arizona desert, where, in eight months, NASCAR will crown it’s champion.

NASCAR began visiting Phoenix Raceway in 1988 as an annual trip to the desert, which became a twice-per-year trip in 2005. The inaugural event at the racetrack was a special one, as it marked Alan Kulwicki’s first career win when he established what he called a Polish victory lap: driving a lap in the opposite direction of the race.

Since then, the Arizona track has been a very well established part of NASCAR. Many of the sport’s biggest names have won at the track, including Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and, most recently, Chase Elliott.

Last year, Phoenix Raceway’s second date was moved to a far more significant weekend than what it had ever hosted before: Championship weekend. All three national touring series would crown their champions at Phoenix for the first time. Phoenix also earned a very special distinction as the last track to host NASCAR racing before COVID-19 shut down just about every sport last March.

Unlike when the championship races were held at Homestead-Miami Speedway from 2002 through 2019, Phoenix, as previously mentioned, has two race dates, which makes this weekend one of the most important regular season races. Teams will have a chance this weekend to evaluate how they need to improve on their cars so that if they’re running for the championship in November, they have a legitimate chance to win the race and the championship.

The venue has a track record which seems to favor veterans of the Cup Series, as only two drivers — Kulwicki and Bobby Hamilton — have won their first race at the track and only two drivers have won at the track in their rookie season, making this weekend a great one to expect a far more familiar face in victory lane than we’ve seen so far in 2021.

RACE AND TRACK STATS

Graphic by Joe Passero

Track: Phoenix Raceway — Avondale, Arizona

Track Length: 1.0 mile

Race Length: 312 laps/312 miles

Pit Road Speed Limit: 45 mph

Defending Winner: Joey Logano

Package: 750 horsepower, low downforce

First Race: 1988

First Winner: Alan Kulwicki

Most Wins: Kevin Harvick — 9 wins (April ‘06, November ‘06, November ‘12, November ‘13, March ‘14, November ‘14, March ‘15, March ‘16, March ‘18)

Stage 1: 75 laps (ends on lap 75) 

Stage 2: 115 laps (ends on lap 190)

Final Stage: 122 laps (ends on lap 312)

FIVE TO KEEP YOUR EYES ON

Brad Keselowski

Phoenix Raceway usually isn’t the first track that comes to mind when thinking about Brad Keselowski, but his recent performances at the track and other similar tracks have started to change that. Keselowski led 82 laps in last March’s race at Phoenix, even after being involved in an accident during the race. He followed that up with a runner-up finish in the championship race there last fall after winning at New Hampshire and Richmond earlier in the season, two tracks with similar characteristics to Phoenix. Keselowski had a strong run last week at Las Vegas and showed a lot of speed. If the no. 2 team brings a car like they had last year at New Hampshire or Richmond, look for Keselowski to keep the deuce near the front throughout the race.

Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick had a rough weekend at the last race, but the king of the desert now returns to the site where he holds the record for most wins. With nine wins in the Cup Series, Phoenix has been a remarkable track for Harvick. Unfortunately, the driver of the no. 4 is on a bit of a dry spell: He hasn’t won a  Phoenix race in three years and hasn’t won a race in 11 starts after averaging one win for every four starts in 2020. What Harvick does have is a streak of 15 consecutive top-10 finishes at Phoenix that dates back to 2013. Harvick clearly has a knack for the one-mile track, so there’s a good chance that he can capture his first win of the year this weekend.

Chase Elliott

Phoenix Raceway was good to Chase Elliott in 2020. Elliott won the pole and led a race-high 93 laps during the March race weekend and, despite starting at the rear of the field last November, led 153 laps and won the fall race to secure his first NASCAR Cup Series championship. He’s led more laps at Phoenix than any other track and has six top-10 finishes in his 10 Cup Series starts there. Elliott hasn’t had much luck this season, but this weekend could be the performance he and his no. 9 team need to turn their year around and start a run to the 2021 championship.

Denny Hamlin

Hamlin has been the best driver of 2021 so far despite not having any wins this season. In the four races this year, the current points leader has three stage wins, three top-fives and an 11th-place finish, 150 laps led and 62 stage points, the most of any driver thus far. He finished fourth in last fall’s championship-deciding race at Phoenix and has a pair of wins at the track, with the most recent one being in the fall of 2019. Hamlin has already proven why he should be considered a favorite to go deep into the playoffs in 2021, but a win this weekend would solidify him as an early championship favorite as well.

Kyle Busch

It probably doesn’t need to be said yet again that 2020 was an underwhelming year for Kyle Busch and his fans. After winning the 2019 championship, Busch was only able to win one race in 2020 and didn’t even advance into the round of 8 in the playoffs. Busch is starting to turn that around now that 2021 is here, with two top-10 runs in the past two weeks and had a strong showing at the Daytona road course before his good day got derailed late in the race. Busch had a streak of top-10 finishes at Phoenix from 2015 through last March which included back-to-back wins in the fall 2018 and spring 2019 races, but that streak ended in November when he finished 11th. Busch knows how to get it done at Phoenix, and a win this early in the year could set Busch up for a much better season than 2020.

BROADCAST INFORMATION

The Instacart 500 will air live on Sunday, March 14 at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX and Motor Racing Network (MRN).

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