AVONDALE, Ariz. – Last year’s Phoenix race gave Chase Briscoe and the No. 14 Stewart Haas Ford Mustang team an early dose of optimism for the season.
Briscoe started sixth, led a total of 101 laps, and won his first Cup race. With an early season win, as Briscoe observed, nothing else matters.
“When you have the win in your back pocket, you can kind of ride off a bad week – or even a couple weekends – because you know that you’re still in the playoffs and that whatever happens, you’re still good,” Briscoe said.
However, this year’s Phoenix race looked a little different for the driver well before the race even started.
Earlier this year, NASCAR introduced and tested a new aerodynamics rule package for short ovals and road courses. The goals of the changes were to reduce downforce, allowing for more sliding and more passing opportunities.
Stewart-Haas Racing was not one of the teams who participated in the test session. Without the additional practice and testing time at Phoenix, it may have put the Stewart-Haas cars behind the eight ball.
The highest qualifying Stewart-Haas Racing car was Harvick who started 15th, followed by Briscoe, who started in the 24th spot.
Going into the Phoenix race, Briscoe was cautiously optimistic.
“I feel like any time you can come back to a place where you’ve won in the past, you’re excited to go there because you’ve had success,” Briscoe said. “So, I’d say this week, I’m a little apprehensive with just how much everything has changed… I’d say going into this weekend from a downforce side, just because we were really good here in both races last year. With the amount of change this year, we’re not really sure how that’s going to correlate.”
The changes made in the offseason seemed to take a bit to get used to for the No. 14 Stewart-Haas team. By the end of the first stage, Briscoe only advanced his position by four spots, finishing Lap 60 in the 20th position.
As the race progressed, the team was making some headway and moving through the field. As the first caution for cause came out at Lap 139 for teammate Aric Almirola, Briscoe made it up to 13th.
Midway through the race, Briscoe was nearly involved in an incident as Chris Buescher drove high up the track, pinching off Daniel Suárez and nearly pushing Briscoe into the wall. Surviving this near miss, Briscoe made gains and finished Stage 2 in the 10th spot.
Briscoe remained in the top 10 for the balance of the race, passing Kyle Busch on the last lap of the Overtime restart to capture the seventh place finishing spot.
With Briscoe’s seventh place finish, the Stewart-Haas Racing team ended the day with two top-10 finishes as Harvick captured the fifth place finishing spot.
Briscoe entered the Phoenix race ranked 32nd in points. As a result of the top-10 finish, Briscoe ended the day ranked 25th in points.
While that is a significant move up the charts, Briscoe did not earn any stage points in the race. While it is still quite early in the season, with the stiff competition in the Cup series, a win in the early part of the season may be what it takes to put Briscoe in the playoffs again this year.
“I think we overall had a pretty strong and solid day. Starting that far back in the pack, it just takes forever to get up there. I thought my car was good enough – if you would have put it in the lead, I would have been fine staying there,” Briscoe said. “But, it was just a matter of getting up there – it takes a long time. It’s like every green flag run you pick up three or four, every pitstop you maybe get one and at the restart, you get one. It just takes forever to get up there when you start 24th.”
Briscoe continued, “I thought we ran it pretty good as a complete race. On that second-to-last restart, I think we could have done a better job and been in a little bit better position. Overall, we really needed that type of run. We were fast all day, and not scratching our heads. Hopefully, we can build on this and get that going.”