Podium Preview: Instacart 500 at Phoenix

(Photo: Landen Ciardullo/TPF)

(Photo: Landen Ciardullo/TPF)

Following up from last Sunday’s exciting round at Las Vegas, NASCAR Cup Series drivers and teams take on Phoenix Raceway for Sunday’s Instacart 500. In this case, the fifth race of the 2021 season may serve as a preview of the season finale in eight months.

Certainly, drivers like Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, and Joey Logano are consistent favorites at Phoenix. Then again, the Instacart 500 could be a great showcase for drivers like Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski in terms of shaking things up in the desert.

Each race weekend, The Podium Finish’s panelists preview each NASCAR Cup Series points-paying race. This weekend, Adam LucasAshley HobbsCody ShoppeKobe LambethLuis TorresMatt SisolerMichelle RaynorSean FolsomTaylor KitchenTerra Jones, and yours truly evaluate Hendrick Motorsports’ resurgence and eliminating the competition caution in the first stage.

Podium Preview: Instacart 500 at Phoenix
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Question 1
(Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

(Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Hendrick Motorsports has reeled off two consecutive race wins with William Byron and Kyle Larson. Can Hendrick continue their good times this Sunday at Phoenix?

Lambeth :  It seems like we could be witnessing the resurgence of Hendrick Motorsports. For the last several years, a lot of people have been wondering when HMS would return to dominant form. In the past, Hendrick was a threat to win on any given weekend. Then, the organization went through a stretch when the competition caught up to their winning ways. 

After moving around parts and rebuilding, HMS has looked extremely strong to start the 2021 season. William Byron and Kyle Larson already have wins in the bag. Chase Elliott is looking to defend his championship. Alex Bowman has shown speed as well. I predict that HMS will certainly continue the good times in Phoenix with another strong result.

Lucas : The winning ways are back for Hendrick! It just seems and feels so right within NASCAR when this team is running up front. The faces have all changed since the last dynasty, but the mission is the same: win! If the team continues its recent winning ways, I think they can be a major force for almost locking out the top five every weekend for the first quarter of the schedule.

Right now, the organization is swinging in the right direction while some other major teams are plateauing from last season’s momentum. Racing and sports, in general, are rigged upon a giant pendulum. Things swing forward with positives and then violently backward with negative results. 

Raynor : I would love to say Alex Bowman is next to win at his home track but I don’t think he will do it on Sunday. His day will come soon. I do expect we will see a new winner this season on Sunday. 

Sisoler :  Absolutely, I can. The question is, will they? Chase Elliott has had some solid runs at Phoenix. But, Joey Logano’s Penske has been very strong here in recent races. And you cannot forget about Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick. Over the past five seasons, there haven’t been any better cars than the No. 18 Toyota and the No. 4 Ford.

I think Elliott has the best chance here. Apart from him, I just can’t see Bowman, Byron, or Larson getting the job done Sunday. I’d be happy to be proven wrong. I think the “Ones to Watch,” to borrow that from Fox Sports, are the 4, 9, and 18.

Torres :  I can see Hendrick having a good run at Phoenix. They’ve had momentum since last November with Chase Elliott winning there to lock up the Cup title. However, I don’t see any of them winning because Team Penske has consistently been stronger at Phoenix. 

Let’s not forget Joe Gibbs Racing either. They’re out to play and stop HMS’ momentum. It’ll be an insurmountable challenge to overcome.

Shoppe :  HMS will certainly be up front again in Phoenix! While they might not end up being the outright strongest, Hendrick Motorsports might just be the most well-rounded group in Cup right now. Chase Elliott is fresh off a championship. With William Byron and Kyle Larson fresh off wins, and that 48 of Alex Bowman running strong as well, it’s hard to find a weak spot in this team unlike some of the competition!

Question 2
(Photo: Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

(Photo: Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

With the bulk of NASCAR’s races in a “show up and race” weekend format, should the series consider eliminating the competition caution in Stage 1?

Folsom : I would have to say no. The competition caution gives the drivers and teams a chance to make a few changes if the car isn’t right. As myself being a local track driver, I would like that chance to make the car more driveable for me and maybe fix issues I might feel in the car for the lack of practice.

Conley :  No. I think as long as there is no practice, no opportunity to check tire wear, the competition caution is needed. I know many will say it’s just for show. But it’s really for safety.

Yes, these teams are good and can pretty much show up and put a car on track in winning condition. But, as we saw with the 4 last week, you can just miss it. And we don’t need an issue of a hard crash because of a tire failure. Precautionary, no harm in having it.

Jones :  Honestly, I go back and forth on this. Part of me wants them to just “show up and race” until the opportunity to work on the car comes, be it lap 5 or 45. I rest here because these are the best of the best from the driver to engineers to the crew and car chiefs. So, let’s see it.

On the flip side, if practice were still happening, they’d be tweaking on the car throughout those practice sessions. So, why take away a quick stop that allows them to do that?

Issues can and will still arise for any team at any point in a race. It’s the nature of the beast. A practice session won’t necessarily prevent an issue. How many times has someone led practices and then had an issue early on in a race? 

I’m indifferent, but suppose I lean more pro-competition caution.

Hobbs :  Yes – 100%. NASCAR and the teams should have the trust in Goodyear to deliver a quality tire. They’ve been doing this for decades. Having a caution just a few laps into the race just to check the tire wear and then run a bit longer to a stage end is taking away from the excitement of racing.

Either eliminate the competition caution or Stage 1 if this is the direction for the near future. Let the boys loose; let them race. A competition caution and Stage 1 just means that the first third of the race is short runs. We are losing the racing and strategy by these two cautions.

Ideally, we need to get back to at least having practice for the teams. Let them shake things down and this will allow for seeing tire wear. I cannot wait to get back practice and qualifying, but that is a whole other story.

Tiongson :  I would absolutely be in favor of eliminating the competition caution in Stage 1. Personally, with these drivers and teams having experience with the “show up and race” weekend format since Darlington last May, it’s about time to let these drivers loose.

It’d be nice for a race that has a more familiar look versus the anticipated yellow flag. Besides, we’d likely have a caution in the early going due to a spin, debris, or a possible accident on the track.

As Landon Cassill shared with me in a recent interview, drivers like him are prepared and equipped for situations like this. It’s not unfamiliar for drivers to turn their first laps of the entire weekend in the race. Also, it’d make for an interesting dilemma for pit crews to decide on making an early race adjustment or riding it out should a race start go unimpeded from a caution flag.

Kitchen : The lack of practice and time with the cars has ruined the days of potential race winners and has denied new teams the chance to catch up to the rest of the field. 

This lack of practice and “car time” has notably affected drivers like Bubba Wallace and his team with mechanical failure after mechanical failure: something that could have been prevented during a race if they caught the issue during practice. 

Also, after last weekend’s race, I remember Kyle Busch briefly mentioning that his simulated car has yet to correlate with how the real car runs on the track. If Kyle’s team had practice, they could fix the inconsistencies with the real car beforehand. However, without any practice, they do not know how far off the car is until the green flag waves and the points slip away.

Though I love the “show up and race” style, I think no practice at all warrants a competition caution. However, in the future, maybe a balance can be struck with some practice time but just enough to leave us (and the teams) guessing during the race.

By all means, those were two incredible laps by the panelists at Phoenix. Now, we reflect on last Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas with our race and points reports!
As Kobe Lambeth had a truly incredible race...

As Kobe Lambeth had a truly incredible race…

..he leads the points for the first time!

..he leads the points for the first time!

Next, Ashley Hobbs proceeds with “Crunching the Numbers: Instacart 500 at Phoenix” edition like Zack Morris plotting up a scheme at Bayside High!
First, here's how your favorite team fares in the Instacart 500 at Phoenix.

First, here’s how your favorite team fares in the Instacart 500 at Phoenix.

Since the inaugural Instacart 500 at Phoenix, the race winner has an average starting spot of 9.7, led an average of 109.3 laps, started within the top five 37.5% of the time, and started within the top 10 50% of the time.

Since the inaugural Instacart 500 at Phoenix, the race winner has an average starting spot of 9.7, led an average of 109.3 laps, started within the top five 37.5% of the time, and started within the top 10 50% of the time.

Are these past Cup champs chasing Elliott?

Are these past Cup champs chasing Elliott?

Check out the trends in the past 10 editions of the Instacart 500.

Check out the trends in the past 10 editions of the Instacart 500.

Now, here's the trends in the Instacart 500 since 2016.

Now, here’s the trends in the Instacart 500 since 2016.

Did you see it any other way?

Did you see it any other way?

Of course, this is the moment of truth as we reveal our picks for Sunday’s Instacart 500 at Phoenix!
Can one of these magnificent seven win Sunday's Instacart 500 at Phoenix?

Can one of these magnificent seven drivers win Sunday’s Instacart 500 at Phoenix?

Tiongson :  If there’s a track where Chase Elliott can turn things around during this young season, it’s at Phoenix. With a convincing victory last fall that resulted in Elliott’s first Cup championship, he can build towards another title run with a Phoenix win.

Conley :  Kind of hard to bet against Chase Elliott, the guy that showed up, dominated, and won the championship by winning the last time we were at Phoenix.

Folsom :  With Chase’s win here last year, he is a strong one to pick here. But with Hendrick Motorsports looking good, I think this is Chase’s chance to come home with the win!

Jones :  Starting outside the top-15, Kevin Harvick will have some ground to make up. However, he has proven time and time again that he knows how to dominate at the 1-mile track and will do so again this weekend.

TPF Stats :  Vegas may have been a bust for Kevin Harvick. That said, there is no one better every since time than Harvick at Phoenix Raceway.

Sisoler :  If there is one track that Kevin Harvick can stamp his name on for his full career, it’s Phoenix. He’s never failed to finish a Cup race there in 36 starts, and he has won a full quarter (nine of 36) of those races.

Harvick has finished on the lead lap in every race there since the final race of 2011 and has not finished outside the top 10 since the first Phoenix race in 2013. I think “The Closer” proves to be the black hat in this Western. Harvick will rob the Chase and Joey Express and ride away into the sunset with the trophy Sunday.

Raynor :  I’m going with Kyle Busch. He has done so well at this track in the spring and is due for a win.

Lucas :  Consistency and general knowledge of how to navigate Phoenix will be a determining factor to Sunday’s outcome. New crew chief/driver pairings have been a winning trend this season. I think a level of maturity and understanding between this pair could be the, dare I say, “rebirth” of Kyle Busch’s Cup-winning ways. Look for him to be first over the line at the checkered flag!

Torres :  Joey Logano was denied a Phoenix sweep last year from Chase Elliott. But, I’d say he’s the favorite to win this Sunday. This season has been feast or famine already for the 2018 champ. However, a tremendous performance will get him back on track.

Shoppe :  While he has not won here before, he has dominated with this package last year. Brad Keselowski will win Phoenix in dominating fashion similar to other flat short(er) tracks, New Hampshire and Richmond.

Lambeth :  By the end of the weekend, we could have five different winners in five races. However, I think the streak will come to an end at Phoenix. We will see our first repeat winner of the 2021 season.

After picking up a surprise early victory at the Daytona Road Course, Christopher Bell and Joe Gibbs Racing will earn their second Cup win together in the desert.

Kitchen :  There are many statical answers to this question that no longer make sense given how certain drivers have raced so far.
Harvick is the obvious choice for this race with the best average finish and the most wins at this track. But, his season has not been great and he finished 20th last weekend. Kyle Busch was another option but he is still finding his footing.

With these two unfortunately off my list, I turn to Kyle Larson. Larson is coming to life and is showing what he can do with his talent in top-notch equipment, something other drivers should fear.

He has finished in the top 10 or top five of every race so far but the Daytona Road Course after crashing while racing for the lead.
Last time at Phoenix in 2020, Larson finished the spring race in fourth with Chip Ganassi equipment. So, it leaves me to imagine what he can do in HMS equipment, and I imagine a win.

Race fans, thanks for joining us for our preview of the Instacart 500 at Phoenix.

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race? Who are your favorites to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week!  Stay safe, wear a mask, and wash your hands often. Also, thanks for reading our content throughout this season.

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes. Ultimately, they are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Also, if you are shopping for NASCAR or racing die-casts, be sure to check out Circle B Diecast! If your order is $20 or more, be sure to use coupon code TPF2021 for free shipping!

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, 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, it'll be here on TPF, by me or by one of my talented columnists who absolutely have a passion for racing.

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. Proud to be from Massachusetts, just as happy to be a Texan.

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