1. Want To Win at Phoenix? It May Depend on how Good Your Teammates Are
There was only one driver at last year’s championship race at Phoenix Raceway who led anywhere close to as many laps as race winner Joey Logano on his way to winning another championship. That driver? His Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney, who paced the field for 109 laps.
As Logano sewed up his title in the closing laps, Blaney was in a position to, depending on how you see things, indirectly or directly help Logano win a championship. With Logano leading, Blaney was able to if needed act as a buffer.
Could the tables turn this year? This time, it’s Blaney with a chance to win a championship with Logano the spectator. Logano knows how to win when it’s checkers above all else at Phoenix. Call it team orders, call it racing hard, call it not rolling over, but having a teammate who is stubborn to pass in tight quarters could help Blaney a great deal on Sunday (Nov. 5).
The same could go for other drivers with teammates as well. If Kyle Larson or William Byron need to hold off someone for a second or could use help holding up a hard-charging car around them, what’s to stop Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman from interjecting themselves in the outcome?
Team orders, direct or not, are part of racing. And when you mix drivers with a chance to win a title with those unable to, it opens the door for that unintended consequence.
2. Could We See a 1-2 Hendrick Title Fight?
One thing this current generation of racecar has done is thrown out the norm of who should run well at given tracks based on a longer tenure of history. It’s all about who has a better handle on getting a car set up and how that matches the style of each driver.
That’s why recent history is a much greater barometer.
And what happened last spring in Phoenix? Larson dominated, leading an excess of 200 laps, but late-race shuffling cost Larson the lead, opening the door for his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Byron.
You know that clip from Parks and Recreation when Ron Swanson tells a store associate “I know more than you?” That’s where No. 24 crew chief Rudy Fugle and No. 5 pit boss Cliff Daniels are, and that’s entirely due to very recent results.
If this weekend were a final examination, the No. 24 and No. 5 teams would be the students an entire class would view as at the head of the class and expected to do the best out of everyone. If Byron and Larson run close to where they did in March, it could give Rick Hendrick a good problem to have – who to cheer for when two of your drivers are head-to-head for a championship.
3. Do Outgoing Xfinity Drivers Need a New Exit Strategy?
For the second year in a row, the Round of 8 finale in the NASCAR Xfinity Series was marked by friction among teammates, one of which was bound for a rival team the next year. Last year, Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Ty Gibbs and Brandon Jones clashed, and there was clearly no love lost between the two. Adding more spice to things? Jones was bound for JR Motorsports after the season.
History repeated itself Saturday with Richard Childress Racing’s Sheldon Creed drawing the evil eye of pretty much everyone in the RCR camp as last-lap contact prevented both he and Austin Hill from advancing to the Championship 4. Creed, by the way, is bound for Joe Gibbs Racing.
This is now the second year in a row where drivers have to walk a fine line late in the season – how badly do you want to help your current team that you won’t be part of next season?
If nothing else, the lesson learned is that with the silly season starting earlier and earlier, it’s harder than ever to win a championship with a lame-duck driver.
4. Could Kevin Harvick Go Out on Top This Weekend?
We almost had a walk-off moment last Sunday at Martinsville Speedway when Aric Almirola contended for a win on the same weekend that he announced he’d be stepping away from racing full-time next year.
Every driver wants to go out on their terms, but an even bigger coronation would be to win in the final race of any career. You don’t want your legacy tainted. Think about how many fans who began watching in the late 1980s had no idea how good Richard Petty was if they only had his 1992 Farewell Tour to base from. The same goes for Darrell Waltrip in the late 1990s.
The good news for Harvick is that he has been competitive all year, even making the playoffs. And if there were ever a place for Harvick to walk off toward the TV booth with a win, Phoenix would be it. Nine times, yes, nine times Harvick has won at Phoenix. Past success is not an automatic precursor of predicting any result, but it sure gives a leg up.
For whatever reason, title contenders tend to run the best at Phoenix. But much like Jeff Gordon at Homestead-Miami Speedway in his final full-season finale, there is no reason for Harvick not to take the checkered flag to cap off his final season as one of the top runners.
5. Could Almirola’s Timing Hinder SHR?
Speaking of Almirola, he finally confirmed what many expected with last week’s announcement about his future plans. I’m not about to tell anybody how to live their life, and it’s a great thing that Almirola appears to be leaving the sport on his terms and not being forced out unceremoniously. It’d have been an incredible irony at Martinsville if Almriola had won, keeping Denny Hamlin from advancing to race for a championship (those who remember the 2007 Milwaukee Mile weekend know what I speak of).
By last weekend, most of the silly season dominoes have fallen. We know where John Hunter Nemechek, Carson Hocevar, Corey LaJoie and others are racing next year. If there was a wild card option that Stewart Hass Racing had in mind, chances are that choice had to look elsewhere so that they wouldn’t be caught without a seat in a game of musical chairs.
SHR will already be in transition with Josh Berry coming aboard full-time. Hopefully, the timing of Almirola settling on his 2024 plans won’t make that adjustment harder.
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