Track Talk: A Preview of the Good Sam 500 at Phoenix

For the first three races of this NASCAR Sprint Cup season, the elite teams of Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, and Team Penske have scored victories respectively at Daytona, Atlanta and Las Vegas.  Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski have the luxury of the next five and a half months to race aggressively for additional wins and bonus points with their Chase seeds.

On the flip side, there are hungry drivers like past Cup champs like Kyle and Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick who are eager to score their first victories of the year.  Each of these aggressive and sensational racers have performed adequately enough to be in the winner’s circle but late race cautions or restarts have otherwise turned their potential winning afternoons into a bitter top-five and top-10 finishes.

Today, the Sprint Cup drivers and teams turn their focus to the “Valley of The Sun” at Avondale, AZ’s 1.022-mile Phoenix International Raceway.  A NASCAR stop since 1988, this unique speed palace has hosted two Sprint Cup events since 2005.  Compared to its sister venues, it is unique with a relatively straight frontstretch that’s complimented with a backstretch that’s got a dogleg.  Essentially, it’s like a Richmond or Iowa track except with the start/finish line not on the dogleg but backstretch…if that makes sense.

The dogleg is often a passing opportunity where drivers can be brave, opting to step out of the status quo path of the backstretch and dive down to a relatively fat but challenging portion of the track.  This will be prevalent during restarts and the closing segment of the Good Sam 500 (Today on FOX at 3 PM ET).  Otherwise, this is a track where patience, a bit of compromising, and some passion for a road course environment are key factors towards a successful day at this race course.

Kevin Harvick is the overwhelming favorite at this venue as he’s won five of the past seven events at this track.  Sure, he might walk away with a sixth victory at PIR in this eight race stretch but let’s say that there’s 38 other drivers who want to have a say with the battle for Victory Lane today.  All in all, it’s shaping up to be another exciting race in the desert.

Let’s get moving to the first portion of this weekend’s Track Talk with Trending Topics accompanied by our TPF team of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley Hull, Cody Shoppe, Jessica TowKathleen Cassidy, Katie Copple, Kerstin Smutny, Sean Fesko and Stephen Conley!  

Trending Topics
Question 1
Brad Keselowski celebrates race wins like he does winning a game of GSN Lingo!

Brad Keselowski celebrates race wins like he does winning a game of GSN Lingo!

Brad Keselowski snapped a winless streak that nearly went a whole year from last season at Fontana to the victory at Las Vegas this past Sunday.  Would you say it’s safe to say that the No. 2 team is ready to knock on the door for more wins in 2016?

Hull :  While it is a great start to win one of the first races of the season, it is still too early to tell if he could possibly win more races, except that this package seems to be benefiting him so far. He is one of the drivers who could do well with this package, and could possibly win another at Kentucky this year, that is if a Gibbs driver doesn’t beat him to it. He finished at solid ninth place at Atlanta with the package as well. Time will tell whether or not another win is in the picture, but as long as this package continues to work out for him, he could possibly win again this season.

Cassidy :  I believe that 2016 will be another great year for the 2 crew. It seems that every other year this team shines. In 2012 with a championship and 2014 with six wins, 2016 is in the right direction of a successful year.

Fesko :  Yes, Bad Brad is going to win a ton of races this season. You might think that a single triumph at Las Vegas is a little thin to serve as the base of this argument, but think about this: despite not winning on a 1.5-mile track in 2015, Keselowski had the best numbers among all drivers and has the third-highest average finish on intermediate tracks since 2014. Three of his four wins on the configuration during that time frame came during the 2014 season when he won six races. With stats like those, it’s easy to say that the No. 2 will be in victory lane many more times this season.

Shoppe :  With the pressure of the winless streak off the No. 2 team, and the fact they are basically locked into the Chase for 2016, they can focus on trying to win as many races as they can. Brad Keselowski and his Miller Lite Ford team will be strong contenders to win often this season. I predict they will win two to four more times this year.

Tow :  Absolutely! Team Penske as a whole (both Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano) looks to be a dominating force as the 2016 season continues on. When looking at stats for Phoenix this weekend, both Keselowski and Logano have a great chance to find themselves in Victory Lane. It’s certainly safe to say that Team Penske will find themselves in Victory Lane multiple times this year as the season progresses.

Hobbs :  I say it is too soon to tell. He won at this point last year and that was really it. Maybe after the west coast swing completes we will get a better feel for Keselowski and the entire field, but now is too soon to tell.

Copple :  I think it’s a little early to say that.  The No. 2 and the No. 22 have been up-and-down teams as of late. Showing promise one week then flopping the next. It will be interesting to see how the No. 2 team does the first part of this season. Will they be up to Championship winning ways like they were just a few years ago? Maybe… but maybe not. And like they say in TV… stay tuned to find out what happens next.  

Smutny :  With the way the races thus far have turned out, we see Keselowski with slowly improving finishes, and of course the win last weekend will likely bring momentum to the team. I would not be shocked at all to see them continuously towards the top of the charts this season.

Conley :  One win does not a season make, but the 2 car is now locked in and will have to be contended with and with the addition of the 21 as a Penake partner, they have an additional “teammate” to lean on. With that said, Logano is not going to let his teammate walk away with it, neither is the rest of the field.

Question 2
Nothing like a little DeWalt and Dollar General can do for Matt Kenseth's season.

Nothing like a little DeWalt and Dollar General can do for Matt Kenseth’s season.

It seems like Matt Kenseth and his No. 20 team have some kind of dark cloud over them in 2016 with their latest debacle coming in the form of a late race crash in Las Vegas. As frustrating as things have been for them, do you see them snapping out of their bad luck streak soon? 

Hull :  It’s really no secret that Matt Kenseth and his team have had nothing but bad luck so far. I believe that every driver or athlete will go through one year where nothing goes right. I remember the year after Carl Edwards lost the championship to Tony Stewart, he had nothing but bad luck. But as frustrating as it is right now for this team, there is hope. Matt Kenseth is part of a powerhouse team. There is a win waiting out there for him. Matt is also a very resilient guy as well, so he could very well get past this bad luck and win. With that said, it’s too early to tell. We are just working on the fourth race of the season, so at this point, we will see.

Cassidy :  Matt Kenseth has a few tracks coming up where he often gets good finishes. Hopefully, this is a glimmer of hope for the 20 team moving forward in the season.

Fesko :  This is a hard one to call. Can Kenseth and Company do so? Sure. Will they? Only time will tell, but momentum is so key that they’ll likely try extremely hard to turn things around – which could pay dividends or compound the issues. But it’s not just 2016. Remember that the Punt Heard Around the World last fall at Martinsville put a huge burden on Kenseth.

The good news, though, is that Jeff Gordon started 2015 out similar to Kenseth, and look how that turned out: a final four Chase berth. Kenseth should keep that in mind if things continue to sour over the next couple of weeks.

Shoppe :  Matt Kenseth and his No. 20 team are definitely getting their bad luck out of the way early this year. I’m sure the Jason Ratcliff lead crew aren’t panicking one bit. All they need is a win and they will be just fine. In my opinion, this is one of the strongest teams in the Cup series right now.  It isn’t a matter of if they get back to their winning ways; it’s a matter of when.

Tow :  We have seen situations like this time and time again – drivers find themselves in a rut but then something happens at some point during the season and they snap out of it. Kenseth and the No. 20 team may be going through some difficult circumstances at the moment but with the steady and dominant performance from Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole, don’t count on seeing Kenseth down and out for too much longer.

Hobbs :  Just like Keselowski, it is too soon to tell with Kenseth. Some drivers just don’t get off to a great start during the season and then summer hits and they start picking up steam; Kenseth could be one of those this year. With the veteran driver that he is, I would never count him out.

Copple :  This answer is going to be much the same as the one previous. It’s too early to tell. I really hope Kenseth and his team can snap out of this “strugglebus streak.” They are a talented, race winning team. I think this slump is just that…a slump. There are a handful of tracks ahead that Kenseth excels at. The No. 20 team could be Championship caliber, they just seem to be missing something, or something isn’t quite clicking. Once it does, watch out!

Smutny :  They have been rather unlucky. I think they can snap out of it though. It is a long season and it has only just begun. There is still many weeks for them to overcome and start fighting their way up the points standings. I wouldn’t personally be worried about such a small percentage of the season being in the books. If they can work together as a team, see where their faults have been and find problems that can be solved, they can get back to where they want to be.

Conley :  They have speed so that will making their luck change a little easier. This is a championship team. No way they will stay down much longer.

Question 3
Austin Dillon's season has been so sharp, it's like his haircuts.

Austin Dillon’s season has been so sharp, it’s like his haircuts.

Austin Dillon has quietly put together a solid start in 2016 to sit 10th in the regular points standings heading into Phoenix.  Would you say that it’s a surprising situation to see the No. 3 team excel or were there some signs late last season that showed that this team has steadily turned the tide?

Hull :  I would say that with all of the problems that they had (the bad pit stop and speeding violation), that is is very good to be in that position. But unfortunately, I don’t think RCR has been that competitive since Kevin Harvick was there. I think that Austin Dillon has more maturing to do and that his crew chief needs to put him in better positions to win. But as I had stated with the last couple of questions, we will see how this luck holds up.

Cassidy :  Austin Dillion’s consistency is surprising for the Sprint Cup Series. I feel as though he has never fully adjusted to the move from the now XFINITY series. The talent is clearly there as we can see with his success from the other two series. However, he has not shined yet in Cup. 

Fesko :  The team started to pick things up late last season and Dillon has only gotten better this year. Will he win races in 2016? I’d say not based on the strength of his performances so far. But the good news is he doesn’t need to in order to have a good season; his teammates Ryan Newman and Paul Menard have both qualified for the Chase based on their consistency throughout the season. Dillon could absolutely pull the same punch this season and show up as a first-time Chaser in September.

Shoppe :  I am not too surprised to see Austin Dillon running well at the beginning of the year. He showed late last year that he can run decent some of the time. He still has a lot of work to do as far as winning a Cup race. Little things like pit road issues, speeding penalties, and the overall speed in his RCR Chevy rides keep Dillon from having a chance to win each weekend but has a chance to make The Chase.

Hobbs :  So far, this is great news for the 3 team! The Sophomore Season Slump is a thing, and entering his 3rd full season, Dillon may have been able to put all the pieces together. But again, it is quite early in the season and only time will tell if he can keep up the momentum or if this is just a string of luck.

Copple :  Dillon is a talented driver with a lot of potential. He is racing for a great team and has the iconic No. 3 behind him. This could very well be a breakout year of sorts for Dillon and his team. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him sitting above the top-20 in points at the end of the season and we may even see him in Victory Lane by the end of the year.

Smutny :  The signs weren’t as evident last year that this team would be as good as its been, thus far. They have put together very solid, and as you said quiet results. I see them excelling for sure. If they can keep being consistent as they have been and put a few podiums and wins on the board, they will be in very good shape come the end of 2016.

Conley :  RCR as a whole is making Plesant gains and this is a much needed strong start for Dillon. In year one, he just wanted to finish all the races and he did.  In year two, he wanted to finish all the laps and compete for wins. He led 39 laps and completed 95% of the laps with nine top-five finishes.   It may have not been the best sophmore year. He must compete for wins this season and he’s off to a decent start.

Question 4
Perhaps Power Ranger Kevin Harvick is thinking of a long awaited joke for FOX NASCAR's Matt Yocum.

Perhaps Power Ranger Kevin Harvick is thinking of a long awaited joke for FOX NASCAR’s Matt Yocum.

Phoenix has been Kevin Harvick’s playground since 2012 as he’s won five of the past seven races at this venue.  Is another winning day in store for the 2014 Sprint Cup champ?

Hull :  I think that he can very well do it again this weekend too. He has an average finish of 1st in the last 5 races, and that is not a stat to sneeze at. However, these were WITHOUT the new lower downforce package. So we shall see how he handles the track with the package. He has done good with it so far though. So I will say, yes!

Cassidy :  The possibility of the 4 team taking home a win at Phoenix is always likely. They clearly hit the spot with setup at this track. The only hope that other teams have is that the low downforce package creates a mix-up in the secret to their setup.

Fesko :  Most likely. In the previous 12 races at the track Harvick has only finished outside the top six on three occasions, and he’s riding a streak of five straight top-two finishes – it would be five straight wins if rain hadn’t shortened the race last fall. He’s led 855 laps in the previous four races in Avondale. I could go on. The point is, unless the No. 4 team self-destructs they’ll be in the winner’s circle.

Shoppe :  There’s no doubt that Kevin Harvick will be one to beat this weekend in Phoenix. I’d like to think there will a few guys that can challenge him. His dominance at PIR can’t last forever right? I’ll say that Kyle Busch has a good chance to upset Harvick’s stranglehold at Phoenix this weekend.

Tow :  I have no doubt that Harvick will notch another win at Phoenix this weekend. How could he not? The numbers don’t lie: Harvick has seven wins there, four of which came within the last three years. Considering that he has been running strong so far this season I would certainly expect to see the No. 4 team in Victory Lane (forbidding any unforeseen circumstances of course).

Hobbs :  It very well could be, but could a new car bring other names up front? Time shall tell.

Copple :  YES! YES! YES! I can see Harvick dominating this race weekend, easily. This is Harvick’s playground. His team has been strong so far this season and I don’t see Phoenix as being any different.

Smutny :  Harvick could very well be a contender for the win especially with his history there, strong confidence on that track and the solid finishes he has racked up so far this season. He is coming off a top-10 in Vegas last week and I am sure he will be hungry for more.

Conley :  Harvick certainly seems like the phoenix master with five wins since the reconfiguration, but looking at the driver ratings and overall running position, Harvick got his nickname as the closer because of leading a handful of laps to win and pit strategy, but the best driver at Phoenix statistically is Jimmie Johnson and we shouldn’t be at all surprised to see these two battling for the win once again.

Four corners, one lap of Track Talk: Phoenix Edition complete!  Before we get to our race picks, let’s take a gander at last weekend’s race results and our points standings heading into Race 4 of 36!
Las Vegas was quite kind to Ashley Hull...

Las Vegas was quite kind to Ashley Hull…

...and it shows quite well in the early going of our points battle!

…and it shows quite well in the early going of our points battle!

Alrighty, y’all!  Let’s get straight to business with our race picks for today’s Good Sam 500 at Phoenix International Raceway!
One of these foul shall hopefully be a winner!

One of these four shall hopefully be a winner!

Tiongson :  So far, it’s been a season where I’ve gone against the odds because why not?  I have to like Brad Keselowski‘s shot to win his second race of the year.  He’s a steady and consistent front runner at PIR and I expect to see Car No. 2 be No. 1 today!

Hull :  I have had this pick in mind since the season began, and I am going with the favorite, Kevin Harvick, this weekend!

Cassidy :  Kevin Harvick…not sure if you have alternatives!

Fesko:  I’m going with Kevin Harvick.

Tow :  My gut says Kevin Harvick for today.

Copple :  Kevin Harvick… obviously!

Smutny :  I will put my money on Kevin Harvick again for this weekend!

Shoppe :  Kyle Busch for the win!

Hobbs :  I’m sticking with the math (http://thepodiumfinish.net/2016/03/crunching-the-numbers-good-sam-500-at-phoenix/) and going with Jimmie Johnson to become the first repeat winner of the year.

Conley :  Going with Jimmie Johnson.

That wraps it up, race fans! The Track Talk crew has spoken and given their thoughts for today’s Good Sam 500!  How about you?  What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?

Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now! Thanks as always to the TPF team. The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.  

 

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. Born and raised in the Boston, MA area, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, you'll likely see an article on The Podium Finish by either myself or one of my talented columnists who absolutely have the motorsports passion.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication.

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