Who… should you be talking about after the race?
If fans love both a first-time winner and a blue-collar driver who came through the ranks the hard way, they should be ecstatic about Sunday’s Ruoff Mortgage 500 at Phoenix Raceway. Chase Briscoe said he struggled to complete the final lap through his tears, but he did it pulling away from Tyler Reddick and Ross Chastain to win, leading three times for 101 laps, including a pair of late restarts that he handled perfectly to hold off all comers.
Briscoe’s path to the Cup Series wasn’t an easy one, but he caught Tony Stewart’s eye, and Stewart chose the youngster to replace the retiring Clint Bowyer last year. Briscoe took some lumps in his rookie year but has started 2022 strong with a win and a pair of top fives in four races. Briscoe’s next top 10 will tie his 2021 total. The new car seems to agree with him, and a little consistency can bring him to the next level.
And don’t forget Chris Buescher. His 10th-place finish is his first top 10 of 2022 and the second for the newly renamed RFK Racing under new owner Brad Keselowski. Buescher joins a group of talented young drivers who look poised to step up to the next level this year. He’s got a Cup win under his belt, and he showed last year he can be more consistent in good equipment. It’s too soon to say that 2022 will usher in a new guard, but if it does, Buescher will be a part of it.
What… is the buzz about?
When the first time the cars hit the track was for the start of the race, the competition cautions made sense. But practice and qualifying are back, and while practice is markedly shortened, teams have enough time to make a 20-25 lap run if they choose.
In other words, the caution is no longer sensible; it’s a little like daylight savings time, which also started Sunday: it served a purpose, but now it’s just annoying.
Don’t expect it to go away anytime soon, though. The networks like it (yay, more commercials!) so it’ll be around for the forseeable future and probably forever. It’s no longer a safety move (with the exception of rain the night before the race), so call a spade a spade, or in this case, a TV timeout. Add it to the list of things NASCAR should get rid of but never will. And just call it what it really is.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Polesitter Ryan Blaney has led over 100 laps in a race nine times in his career, and each time he’s left the track without the win. Sunday was no exception. Blaney backed up his qualifying effort by leading laps and winning stage two. He couldn’t regain quite enough track position in the final stage to make a run for the win, even with a couple of late restarts. Blaney settled for fourth, matching his 2022 best from Daytona.
Last week’s winner (and Phoenix native) Alex Bowman has struggled at his home track, scoring just one top-10 finish in his 13 previous starts. His 14th-place result may not have been what he and his fans hoped for, but it’s 10 spots better than his career average.
Active Phoenix win leader Kevin Harvick will return to the track in the fall with a chance to make history. His sixth-place finish was good enough to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt at 18 straight top-10s at a single track. Harvick has quietly become one of the best the sport has ever seen, and while the wins have tapered off as he enters the twilight of his career, he’s still a threat a lot of weeks.
Fall race winner Kyle Larson led a couple of laps and scored a few stage points on Sunday, but it was hard to look at the No. 5 during the race and see a winning car. That’s happened before and Larson has come through with top finishes and, yes, even a few wins. But this time, the luck ran out as a broken valve spring cost Larson’s car an engine cylinder and a complete race. Larson finished his day in the garage and in 34th place.
When… was the moment of truth?
The setup to the final run to the checkers wasn’t all that different than last week’s overtime run at Las Vegas, though this week the field avoided extra laps to decide the race. What was different was the strategy.
This week, tires weren’t going to be as important as track position at the end, and Briscoe used it to his advantage.
But what’s really exciting about Sunday’s finish is the drivers who decided things. Not only did Briscoe show his stuff, but Reddick and Chastain continued to impress. If their somewhat smaller teams can keep pace with the biggest in the sport as they learn the new car, this is a pair of drivers poised to set the Cup Series on fire by summer. Briscoe and Austin Cindric already have wins and these two don’t look to be far behind If the sport needs an infusion of new talent, it’s getting it so far in 2022
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
The Cup Series heads a few hours south to the newly-revamped Atlanta Motor Speedway, and things could get interesting. The narrower, faster track could race more like a superspeedway than the other intermediates. NASCAR has implemented the double yellow-line rule used at Daytona and Talladega to prevent racing on the apron, and in such tight quarters, it’s certainly possible that the Big One will make an appearance.
Driver reactions to the reconfiguration have been mixed. Some criticized the track for not consulting drivers on the plans, and some who participated in a Goodyear tire test on the new surface chose their words carefully, warning fans that they won’t see anything like the Atlanta of the past.
Strap in, it could get interesting.
How… much does this race preview the championship race in the fall?
With the new car, the title race might as well be at another track. What teams know now will be thrown out, rewritten, thrown out and rewritten again by then. Struggling teams will improve, teams taking advantage of the struggles won’t always have that option. But new car aside, the spring race has not been an indicator of who’ll win in the fall. The last driver to win both races in a season was Harvick in 2014. Phoenix wasn’t the final race then, so while Harvick did win that title, he had to wait another week to make it official.
When the final race moved to Phoenix in 2020, the champion did win that last race in both 2020 and 2021, they didn’t fare as well in the spring. In fact both Chase Elliott in 2020 and Larson last year finished in seventh place in the first Phoenix event. If that’s an indication of anything, watch Kyle Busch in November.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.