THE LEFT TURN
NASCAR heads for the Valley of the sun in Phoenix
This week, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for ISM Raceway for the ISM 400 in Phoenix, Arizona. This is NASCAR's semi-final race before the championship race at Homestead. Many would consider this one of the most important races of the season considering it decides who will get to race for a championship. This track is a mile and a half oval that races like a short track. Last season, this track was reconfigured and completely changed the landscape. The Finish line was moved all the way to the front stretch and both the corners were inverted. This should be interesting should we see someone try to make a last second pass now that they have more time to pull it off.
Last week, Kevin Harvick went on to win his fourth race of the season after passing his teammate Aric Almirola. This race was a wreckfest, there were plenty of big names to crash including championship favorites Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott. During the weekend, Texas Motor Speedway track officials added a tire compound to try and add more grip to the race track. This did not sit well with the cars as we saw many just spin out by themselves. The trouble area seemed to be turns three and four as that was where the majority of the wrecks were. Many fans were not happy with the product on the track but if it did do one thing - it allowed for some newer drivers to run up front such as Daniel Suarez and Willam Byron. All together though, the cream rose to the top and Kevin Harvick still had a fairly dominant race as he led 119 laps before winning and advancing to the championship race at Homestead.
As we draw closer to Homestead, many wonder what has been going on with Kyle Busch. As many know, it has been June since the 2015 NASCAR Champion has won a race and since then he has just kind of been around. He has had many moments to forget during this time such as when his engine blew at the Charlotte oval or when he ran into the back of Garrett Smithley at Las Vegas but because of the massive amount of points he has gained all throughout the season, he has been able to stay in the top four. Regardless of where he is in points, it is clear that he is in a slump and this team is doing everything they can to get him out of it as we get closer and closer to Homestead next week. We will see how he responds this week at the track he has won the last two times they have come here.
The championship picture definitely looks pretty much the same as it has been over the past two seasons as Martin Truex, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano make up the top four spots. While Truex and Harvick are locked in with victories at Martinsville and Texas, the focus shifts to third and fourth as both Busch and Logano hold firm. After a disastrous weekend at Texas, Denny Hamlin finds himself 20 points out of the top four. While 20 points may seem like a lot to make up, it is actually fairly manageable. Should he go on to win both stages and Logano not finish top 10, he would make up the difference and move into a tie with Logano for the fourth spot. He could also finish in the top 10 in those stages as well and make a big dent in the points should Logano run into trouble but that will be tough considering how good he runs on a weekly basis. The drivers behind Hamlin are Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. While Elliott crashed in the early stages and was never really a factor, Kyle Larson on the other hand looked like he had a car that was capable of contending for the victory. On lap 241, Larson entered pit-lane for his pit-stop and everything went off without a hitch until Bubba Wallace spun out in turn two catching Larson on the tail end of the lead lap eliminating any opportunity for a win. This caution led many to speculate that Wallace spun himself out on purpose to get a caution and not go a lap down but this has not been proven as Wallace had a flat tire before the spin. Out of the three, the driver that came out looking the best was Blaney. By no means was it the day Blaney and his Penske team would have liked to have had but overall the No. 12 had a pretty respectable race. Throughout the day, Blaney's car was not handling well at all but this team battled back and went on to a top 10 finish. It will be interesting to see how he will respond at Phoenix this week.
The driver that I predict will win this week is Denny Hamlin. As I mentioned earlier in this article, Denny has a steep path to climb to get back into the final four and a win is the only guarantee he can race for a championship. Overall, this has not been a track that he has been able to put up the best numbers but I think with the added pressure looming, this should be the car to beat. It will be interesting to see what car owner Joe Gibbs does to try and get Hamlin back into the top four considering his teammate Kyle Busch is one of the two standing in his way. Still I look for the #11 Fedex Toyota Camry to go to Victory lane and get back in the championship hunt.
(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com the best website for all NASCAR stats).