Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Christopher Bell Ends Phoenix Drought

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

After two weeks of finishing 33rd or worse, Christopher Bell turned things around at Phoenix Raceway to win the Shriner’s Children’s 500. Bell, along with Tyler Reddick, showed early that he had one of the cars to beat, winning the second stage.

See also
Christopher Bell Dominant in the Desert, Wins at Phoenix

Mid-race cautions shuffled Bell to mid-pack with just under 100 to go, but Bell worked his way back to the front, while Reddick and other early frontrunners could not do the same after being trapped in traffic. 

Chris Buescher mounted a charge in the closing laps, shaving a couple of seconds off Bell’s lead, but time ran out and Buescher still trailed Bell by 5.465 seconds. It’s Bell’s first win of 2022 and moves him from 21st to 12th in driver points.

And don’t forget Buescher and teammate Brad Keselowski. RFK Racing has had a bit of a shaky start to 2024, but he put it all together in a big way in Phoenix. Buescher’s runner-up finish, his second top 10 of the year, gives him some momentum heading to Bristol, a track where he has a win and a fourth-place finish in the last two races on the track’s concrete surface.

Keselowski grabbed his first top 10 and top five at Phoenix after failing to finish the first two races and finishing 13th a week ago in Las Vegas. RFK had a strong 2023, and despite the stumbles to open 2024, at Phoenix they looked like they’re ready to pick things up where they left off last year.

What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

For the third year in a row, NASCAR rolled into Phoenix with a different rules package, hoping to find something that would make the racing better on the short tracks and flat tracks on the circuit. And while it’s better than the original Next Gen package they ran in 2022, not a lot of gains have been made.

What’s missing? Prior to the Next Gen car, NASCAR also used different engine packages at some tracks — while lower horsepower helped on the intermediate tracks (and still does), the short tracks, flat tracks and road courses put on a better show with more power under the hood.

If more power has the potential to be a major fix, and it’s something that teams could easily adapt to, why won’t NASCAR pull the trigger on something that drivers and fans seem to agree would help the sport?

The reason given was that the lower HP package was key in attracting new manufacturers to the Cup Series. But that hasn’t happened, and given that this isn’t about a whole different engine but about different tapered spacers and possibly some tweaks to the fuel injection, which is done via computer, it no longer makes sense to hold this over teams and fans.

See also
Denny Hamlin Leads Most Laps, Finishes 11th After Late Phoenix Spin

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Pole winner Denny Hamlin had a great short-run car in the first half and led twice for 68 laps, though he lost a little on longer runs, giving up spots under green to finish third in both opening stages. What sealed Hamlin’s fate, though, was a spin on his own two-thirds of the way through the race. After getting loose and going around, Hamlin wound up deep in the pack and while he was able to climb back to 11th, he wasn’t in the mix for the win any longer.

Defending race winner William Byron started and had a couple of stints in the top 10, but wasn’t really in the conversation for most of the afternoon as the Chevrolet camp struggled to keep pace overall. After finishing sixth and fourth in the opening stages, Byron finished an uncharacteristically lackluster 18th.

Active Phoenix win leaders Joey Logano and Kyle Busch took over the top spot with three wins apiece after all-time leader Kevin Harvick retired following the 2023 season. Both of them would probably just as soon forget about this one, though. Logano struggled from the get-go, leaving him mired in the pack for most of the day and dropping off the lead lap in the second stage. The final blow for Logano came on lap 206, when he got spun by John Hunter Nemechek. The damage to his No. 22 spelled the end to his day.

Busch’s luck wasn’t much better than Logano’s. He lost a lap early and never found his groove. A late spin on lap 197 was the low point of his day, and Busch didn’t bounce back very far, finishing a lap down in 22nd.

When… was the moment of truth?

A string of cautions around the 100 to go mark changed the tone of the last third of the race. After long green runs to open the day, the cluster of incidents mentioned above allowed pit strategy to come into play, and the resulting decisions changed things up for the run to the finish. Martin Truex Jr. stayed out, gambling on more cautions. When they didn’t come, tire wear did, knocking Truex out of contention and to a seventh-place finish.

While Bell was able to rebound, others who had been running well earlier were not. Reddick, who had been the class of the field early on, only managed to get back to 10th despite restarting with Bell. Chase Elliott and Byron barely got into the top 20.

For Keselowski and Buescher, the shuffle helped them to top-five results, and Ty Gibbs and Michael McDowell also capitalized.

That kind of strategic turnaround made for a better race. It played out organically but produced an unexpected result, at least behind Bell.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

In one of the more questionable scheduling decisions for 2014, the Cup and Xfinity Series will visit Bristol Motor Speedway before turning around and heading back west to Circuit of the Americas. Mid-March is very early to be racing in the mountains — the forecast for Bristol is cloudy with temperatures in the low 60s and rain in the mornings. Add in lows around 40 and that’s not very pleasant for fans hoping to camp near the track.

Austin looks to be about 10 degrees warmer next weekend. Bristol has struggled to bring in fans for the spring race recently for a variety of reasons. NASCAR hoped a dirt race would sway them, but the track’s location works against it from the start — there aren’t a lot of hotels in a short radius, so the ones there raise prices sky high. If camping is the alternative, that’s fine, but temperatures will keep some away, particularly those with tents.

Another option to tack onto the western leg of the spring schedule would be Sonoma Raceway.

Another couple of weeks could make a big difference for Bristol’s weather — and in bringing fans to the races. 

In any case, the spring race is back on concrete after a couple of tries on dirt. If the forecast holds, fans may see the damp track package in play. Fans asked for both of these changes, but will they make a difference in numbers?

See also
Erik Jones Frustrated with Chase Briscoe After Late-Race Phoenix Tangle

How… long will it be before Ty Gibbs grabs his first Cup win?

Gibbs has come out swinging in 2024. In four races, he’s got a pair of top fives and three top 10 and sits fifth in points.

The win is coming.

Gibbs is running with the frontrunners and not making mistakes. He’s in position to capitalize, and when the opportunity is there, he will.

Learning to race for wins at the Cup level is a progression that’s not just about having fast cars. The closer a driver gets to the front, the tougher the competition gets both in terms of driving prowess and equipment. Navigating among the leaders isn’t the same as racing for 10th. It’s not the same as racing for wins in the Xfinity or Truck Series.

Gibbs looks like that win is on the way —and once he gets it, he’ll know how to get more. He’s doing things right, and it will eventually pay off.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-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 working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is 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.

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Joshua

I hope Gibbs is bitten by bad luck and never wins. He’s like Byron…both proponents of far right nonsense. AS for camping–since when was that supposed to cater to the amenities of every day life? It’s CALLED CAMPING. I’m sure that the campsites are like the Taj Mahal compared to what they were in the mid-90s. As for spring races….NASCAR is 76 years old this year and I’m sure there have been many races ran in “cold” or “cool” weather. Frontstretch writers should stop writing of the negatives and focus on the positives.

Bill B

You should leave politics out of your comments otherwise someone may say F you!!

For what it’s worth I don’t like either of them either but it has nothing to do with politics.

Last edited 1 month ago by Bill B
Kevin in SoCal

“the Cup and Xfinity Series will visit Bristol Motor Speedway”

Check again, the schedule says no XFINITY at Bristol. Their next race is next week at COTA.
The trucks will be at Bristol.

Last edited 1 month ago by Kevin in SoCal
DoninAjax

At least there are 2 events so NA$CAR can get their Saturday windfall as well as Sunday.

Echo

$$$ right. Nascar perception. Fines and suspension for lug nuts coming off are a must to make the teams look bad instead of Nascar’s decision. Do you think Nascar will ever listen to the drivers and car experts and bring back 750 hp engines to the tracks it works best at !!! Absolutely no reason they shouldn’t except for the perception that NASCAR made a mistake.

DoninAjax

I’m sure you meant “another” mistake!

Echo

Yes I did

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