AVONDALE, Ariz. – The three week West Coast Swing comes to a close with Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Heading into Sunday’s 312-lap race, two different winners from the Chevrolet camp have made their presence known. Kyle Busch and William Byron were victorious respectively at Fontana and Las Vegas.
Now, the attention turns to the 1-mile, D-shaped track located about 30 miles to the Southwest of its namesake city. Although Phoenix Raceway has been a Cup race weekend staple since 1988, the spring race has been around since 2005 originally as a mid-spring event.
Like Las Vegas, it is a bit of a unique situation to compete at Phoenix just 127 days ago, or basically when the clocks went back an hour. On the surface, it would seem logical to assume that those who were competitive in the season finale would be the same drivers in the mix for today’s race.
Aside from teams and drivers changing since the Nov. 5 race weekend, the package has a different look with a smaller rear spoiler, down from a 4-inch height to 2 inches, toned down diffuser strakes, engine panel strakes and the outer fencing of the diffuser itself. The objective is to create less downforce and allow for the drivers to be a part of the equation.
Thus far, it seems Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson and Byron are enjoying the new year, new short track package. Then again, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Erik Jones may have something to say about who wins this race.
Once the flag waves the green flag to kick off this new season, it is anyone’s guess as to who will prevail in this year’s Pennzoil 400. For the time being, come along for the ride this and each race weekend with Podium Preview.
This weekend, Cody Shoppe, Jasmine Sharpe, Kobe Lambeth, Luis Torres, Matt Sisoler, Sean Folsom, Teresa Bennink and yours truly consider the next, potential first-time Cup winner at Phoenix and the importance of a strong performance and result in Sunday’s race prior to the season finale on Nov. 4.
Last year, Chase Briscoe scored his first career Cup victory at Phoenix. Who has the potential to be the next first-time Cup race winner in Avondale, Arizona?
Lambeth : Starting with Chase Briscoe, I think he can truly get his 2023 season underway in Phoenix. After crashing in the Daytona 500 and showing very little pace at the next two races, entering this race as the defending winner certainly has to create some optimism for the No. 14 team. Getting that first career Cup win last year was a major shot in the arm for Briscoe and set the stage for a good year.
Looking at the next first-time winner, I think Ty Gibbs stands the best chance to get the job done. He’ll be in good equipment capable of winning, but the main focus now is getting experience and logging all the laps to get a better understanding of what it takes to win at the Cup level. But who knows, maybe we’ll see Gibbs continue to impress us and surprise the field with a victory in the “Valley of the Sun.”
Sisoler : I would have to say either Ty Gibbs or Noah Gragson given how well the pair have run at Phoenix before, but given that Gragson, no disrespect meant to Legacy MC, is in a Legacy car while Gibbs is in a JGR Camry, I give the edge to Ty Gibbs.
Torres : The talent pool of guys who’ve yet to win a NASCAR Cup Series race is pretty thin right now. I don’t see a lot of guys who’ll genuinely break through right now, but if I have to choose one guy, Ty Gibbs is that guy.
Phoenix Raceway has been his playground thus far based on his success in ARCA and Xfinity. While we’ll never know how he would have fared in the Cup finale due to the passing of his father Coy hours after winning the Xfinity title, I expect Gibbs to run well this weekend.
The question remains how competitive he’ll be and if a few things work out his way, a maiden Cup win is possible. Just not at this time, but you never know with this series sometimes.
How important is this spring race weekend in relation to potentially contending for the championship race in November?
Sharpe : This race can be considered a mock run of the fall race. Yes, there are some differences like weather, but the principles are the same. Being able to run decently early on is key to snagging not only points, but great finishes, which in return, means spots in the points standings.
We’ve seen plenty of times how having a consistent run can save a driver from being knocked out of the playoffs. It’s better to have everything figured out now rather than later.
Tiongson : It is a unique situation as it can be NASCAR’s version of a baseball team getting used to competing in the same stadium of a World Series or a hockey team competing in the Stanley Cup Finals. Then again, there are some distinct differences.
Of course, baseball and hockey do not feature four Goodyear tires and a body that resembles those with a Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang or Toyota Camry. Also, none of those prior circumstances compare to an unorthodox layout for the 1-mile Phoenix Raceway.
When I consider the importance of running well in the spring in relation to the season finale, it is helpful to have notes and experience with running toward the front of the pack. Look at Joey Logano and Kyle Larson as prime examples who have learned a great deal of contending for wins and championships at this venue.
If you are someone like Larson, William Byron or Kyle Busch, it could be a successful Sunday in more ways than one with a great run in this fast, 312-lap race. Having a fast car that is near neutral handling conditions does a driver and team plentiful ahead of the November season finale, ironically when we go back an hour.
Bennink : With a new race package this week, the teams cannot rely on last year for set up information. This race will be a test session again, much like the first races of the season last year were.
Going into the race weekend, the handful of cars that had the opportunity to test at Phoenix may have a bit of an advantage early on in the race and the teams need to capitalize on that advantage to gain crucial stage points. The data gathered during this race will be paramount to being able to have a good finish at the season finale.
Shoppe : This has got to be one of the most important weekends of the early part of the season of these teams. Despite the condition changes in the time of year, we tend to see a lot of overlap in teams running well in the spring and in November when it’s all on the line. Expect everyone to put their best foot forward here in Phoenix to show they are the ones to beat come championship time!
The TPF team has nailed their two laps around the 1-mile Phoenix Raceway, qualifying in the top three for Sunday’s race! Before we prepare for Sunday’s race, let’s recall last Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Race No. 3 of 36, with our race and points report!
Next, let’s consider the top 10 starters for Sunday’s United Rental Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway!
Last but not least, it’s winning time! Here’s our picks for Sunday’s United Rental Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway!
Sharpe : The Toyotas have struggled this year to produce desired results, but they seem to have started to get a hang of things after last week’s race in Vegas. Denny Hamlin is a veteran driver with not only the experience, but the understanding of how a race like Phoenix runs and, more importantly, when to strike.
Lambeth : Kevin Harvick‘s final full season as a NASCAR Cup Series driver is off to a solid start. Phoenix has always been a good track for “The Closer.” I believe he’ll secure his postseason spot with a win this weekend as Stewart-Haas Racing looks to get back to its winning ways!
Sisoler : “The Closer” has been the best driver in Phoenix in the past few years. I don’t see that changing in his final year, to the point that I’m calling it that Kevin Harvick will take the checkered flag at Phoenix on Sunday.
Shoppe : With Chevy winning each race so far this season and how close he’s come to winning, Kyle Larson is my pick to win in Phoenix!
Folsom : Team Hendrick hasn’t had the best draw of luck the past few races, but I’m hoping Kyle Larson can pull out a win this time!
Tiongson : Kyle Larson has been atop the speed charts at Phoenix since the start of the weekend. I look for more of the same to hold true for Sunday’s race as he takes his first win of 2023.
Torres : Ryan Blaney was superb last time around at Phoenix. At one point, it looked like he was going to buck the trend of every Cup championship finale being won by a Championship 4 contender.
While he didn’t win last year’s finale to cap off a winless season, Blaney hasn’t skipped a beat this weekend. I expect him to be very competitive and dethrone Chevrolet’s early 2023 dominance by going back to Victory Lane.
We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into the 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 as we celebrate our 15th anniversary of operations!
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.
Lastly, if you are in the hunt for the latest and greatest Lionel Racing NASCAR die-cast cars, head on over to Spoiler Diecast! If you spend $20 or more to purchase in-stock and/or preorder items, you can save 5% off your order total and get free shipping with promo code “TPF!” Head to the winner’s circle with Spoiler Diecast right now!