NASCAR heads to the desert for the Instacart 500

NASCAR heads to the desert for the Instacart 500
Look for Denny Hamlin to win this weekend. Photo via: Wiki Commons.
NASCAR: Hollywood Casino 400 preview and predictions

The NASCAR Cup Series heads for the Valley of the Sun this weekend at Phoenix Raceway. This track currently hosts two races including the season finale in November as well. This will be an important race for drivers that should be championship contenders. This track is a mile and a half, but it races very much like a short-track. We could very well see a lot of three and four-wide after the restart as they go down the sweeping front-stretch. We will also see the return of the higher horsepower package this week as well, so that will also play a part in the racing.

Last week at Vegas, Kyle Larson captured his first win of 2021 and first win with Hendrick Motorsports. His #5 Camaro was head and shoulders above everyone the entire race as he led a race-high 103 laps. Despite all that, Brad Keselowski didn't make it easy on the California phenom as it came down to a late race pit-stop where Larson would win the race off pit-road and pull away to victory. This victory really put the racing world on notice as this team has been strong all year. But now, this could very well be the catalyst that pushes him over the hump as a championship contender.

With Larson's performance, Hendrick Motorsports appears to be back where they were in their glory days of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Not only was Kyle Larson dominant but William Byron was also very competitive as well as he led 21 laps early in the race. When the race started, it looked like Chase Elliott was the car to beat but after falling off the jack in pit-road his chances took a hit. While it looked like he was going to storm back through the field, Elliott lost grip and spun out during a late race restart and spun out. He was still able to rebound and finish 13th. This is a welcomed sight for a lot of race fans, but it's not really new considering Eliott and his Hendrick team won the title last year. Regardless, it should be interesting to see what this team can do and if Alex Bowman the fourth driver there can catch up and also contend for wins.

While the Hendrick Chevy's are thriving, on the other end of the spectrum the Stewart-Haas team continues to struggle. While Kevin Harvick had strung together three top ten finishes to start the season, last week at Vegas the car seemed to have absolutely no speed. When the race started things looked promising as he started on the pole but after that, it seemed like they fell off a cliff. They had to limp to a 20th place finish. His teammates didn't fare much better as rookie Chase Briscoe finished one spot behind him in twenty-first. The driver who had it the worst was Aric Almirola who was involved in numerous accidents and finished an abysmal 30th place. This has been a horrendous start for the Florida native as he has now had two consecutive races where he was involved in an accident, and has crashed in four of the five races this season. The pressure is definitely going to be on him considering his 2022 plans are unclear. Stewart-Haas is in a strange place right now, but I am confident they will be able to turn it around. Well see what happens with this team down the line

Ironically enough, the favorite this week has to be Kevin Harivck. He has won here an unprecedented nine times and has almost led over three times more laps than any active driver. He will be coming from the back this week, but it shouldn't be too much of a challenge considering this is easily his best racetrack. I look for Harvick to bounce-back this week and really be a threat to win come Sunday.

The driver that I have winning is Denny Hamlin. When you look at the stats this year, no one has been better. But closing the deal has been the biggest challenge for him. Luckily, he's going to a track where he has been the next best driver behind Harvick and Kyle Busch. He has two victories here and nearly won here last year in the championship race. I look for him to finally put it all together and take the #11 Offerpad Toyota to victory lane this Sunday.

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Suns defeat Rockets, 110-105. Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images.

Phoenix All-Star Devin Booker and Houston rookie Cam Whitmore got into a minor scuffle midway through the fourth quarter Thursday night and both players were called for a technical foul.

With a couple big blocks on the ensuing possession, Suns center Jusuf Nurkic was there to back his star teammate.

Booker scored 35 points, Kevin Durant added 24 and the Suns held off the Rockets 110-105, with the teams set to meet again in Phoenix on Saturday night.

Nurkic had 16 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks before fouling out. His biggest moment came in the fourth, when he stuffed Whitmore twice on the possession following the scuffle, drawing huge roars from the Phoenix crowd.

“Very important — that's the team sticking together,” Booker said. “That goes a long way. That's what you need when things get tough, it gets to the thick of things and the energy is high. You want to know you have people on your team that are built like that.”

Booker scored 20 points in the first quarter to help give the Suns an 18-point lead they would never relinquish. He has scored at least 20 points in an NBA-high six quarters this season.

Three-time All-Star Bradley Beal missed his fifth straight game because of a hamstring injury.

The Suns took an 86-75 lead into the final quarter. Houston cut the advantage to six midway through the fourth, but Booker responded immediately with a 3-pointer to push the lead back to nine.

That led to the brief skirmish between Booker and Whitmore. Tempers stayed hot over the next few minutes — Houston's Alperen Sengun fouled out and then got two quick technicals, earning an ejection.

Booker hit both of the technical free throws, Nurkic followed with his two free throws from Sengun's foul, and that pushed the Suns' lead to 99-84. The Rockets would cut the lead to four with 16.9 seconds left, but Royce O'Neale hit two free throws to end the threat.

Jalen Green led Houston with 34 points. Fred VanVleet added 21. The Rockets connected on just 11 of 45 3-pointers and shot 33.3% from the field overall, which was their worst percentage of the season.

“It wasn't one of our better nights as far as guys getting open looks and making the extra pass,” Rockets coach Ime Udoka said. “We had a few guys who had it going, but a few guys who were struggling.”

Phoenix has won seven of its past 10 — and nine in a row at home — as it tries to stay in the top six of the Western Conference playoff race and avoid the play-in tournament. The sliding Rockets have lost eight of 10.

“We're getting confident in this building,” Suns coach Frank Vogel said.

Booker's big first quarter pushed the Suns to a 33-17 lead. The four-time All-Star made 8 of 10 shots from the field, including a 33-foot 3-pointer in the final seconds.

Phoenix settled for a 64-53 halftime lead. Booker had 26 points before the break while Green led Houston with 21.

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