Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Who Cares About the Other 34 Races? Only Phoenix Matters

What Happened?

When the checkered flag dropped at Phoenix Raceway, Christopher Bell earned partial redemption after a brake failure prematurely ended his championship bid in the 2023 season finale. 

Bell dominated the final laps of the race, opening up a large gap over second-place Chris Buescher, who drove past Ty Gibbs just before the race’s end. Though he had a dominant car, Bell did not exactly have control the entire race.

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

A slower qualifying lap left Bell mid-pack to start the race. A long green flag run in stage two allowed Bell to drive to the stage win, but a bad pit stop pushed the No. 20 back in the running order. 

A slew of cautions and mixed strategy further jumbled up the field, including some rather large crashes.

After the track position shuffle, only Bell proved strong enough to drive back through to the front, regaining the lead when Martin Truex Jr. pitted late in the race for fuel. 

While both races last year had cautions break up the race late, this event stayed green, and Bell drove off into the desert sunset. 

What Really Happened?

For the first time this season in Cup, a car without a bowtie felt the falling confetti in victory lane. Toyota made a statement by dominating both the race and the weekend.

Yes, Chevrolet was in charge the first three weekends. It could very well rule the next 30. But does it really matter? Despite winning half of the races in the Next Gen car, Chevrolet has zero championships in that time.

The reason? Short track struggles.

See also
Thinkin' Out Loud: New Bodies, Same Result for Ford, Toyota

The Ford and Toyota redesign remains a hot topic at the front end of the season, and discourse will likely continue as the year plays out with its various twists and turns.  But after this weekend, the area of focus for Toyota’s new Camry seems very apparent. It had to get better at short tracks, namely Phoenix.

Of the four previous Next Gen Phoenix races, Toyota had led a total of 15 laps. In that time, Ford and Chevrolet have won twice.

Additionally, Team Penske’s late season success, especially at Martinsville Speedway and Phoenix, gives the blueprint for winning championships: only Phoenix matters. 

On Sunday (March 10), Toyota led 96% of the laps. Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the season still matters. Drivers have to perform well enough to make the Playoffs and advance through the rounds to the Championship 4, a tall task.

Surely, Toyota hopes to work on this car and compete for wins on all types of tracks. But after this weekend, whichever Camry drivers make the final four could already be considered the championship favorites.

Who Stood Out?

Not only did Noah Gragson stand out with his bright green and orange Danica Patrick-esque paint scheme, the driver of the No. 10 machine once again showed consistent speed and flashes of brilliance. While he finished in 12th, Gragson had a top-10 car throughout the race and looked like one of the fastest Fords.

The most impressive parts of Gragson’s day happened every time the green flag waved on a restart. We typically see drivers choose the low line, fanning out on the apron and playing the limbo ‘how low can you go’ game in turns one and two. The No. 10 chose an alternate strategy, taking the top line and ripping around the outside of cars nearly every restart, a major contributor to another eye-opening race.

Before long, Michael McDowell will no longer stand out as a surprise contender. But after Front Row Motorsports struggled last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, speed all weekend seemed a surprise.

McDowell started the race in the top 10 after a stellar qualifying effort. After a very quiet day, the hometown driver found himself running well after strategy flipped the race on its head. Good track position and a clean drive resulted in an eighth-place finish for McDowell.

Who Fell Flat?

Outside of a 16th-place finish at Las Vegas, Austin Dillon would be a perfect example for Murphy’s Law in action. Across Daytona International Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, and now Phoenix, Dillon has completed a combined 11 laps damage-free.

The no good, very bad season for Dillon only got worse when he piled into Derek Kraus only six laps in. He wrecked at Daytona after five laps and had just completed the opening lap at Atlanta before crashing. 

Not many people had major expectations for the No. 3 car this year, but this start is more unlucky than disappointing.

Should Joey Logano and Team Penske be ready to hit the panic button? Yes, only four races have gone by, and Logano did have help from John Hunter Nemechek. But even before his crash, Logano showed a lack of speed, running outside the top 20. 

The Mustang Dark Horses still find themselves searching for some consistency, but Logano’s luck looks similar to that of Dillon’s. The No. 22 has crashed in three of the four races, with only one finish better than 28th.

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

Better Than Last Time?

Early on, this weekend’s Phoenix race showed promise. A short stage one kept fans guessing, and the long green flag run in stage two actually proved pretty entertaining. We saw a lot of comers and goers throughout the field, and when the string of cautions and differing strategies mixed up the field, the third stage looked even more promising.

On top of that, drivers truly looked like they had trouble controlling the cars. Veterans Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin brought out cautions just by losing control and spinning.

However, outside of Bell’s lightning-fast hot rod, track position ruled over the rest of the field. Drivers such as William Byron and Chase Elliott, who resided in the top 10 in the first two stages, ended up mired outside the top 15, unable to make up ground.

Even stage one winner and race contender Tyler Reddick found himself stuck in seventh during the final stage, ultimately falling back to finish 10th.

Last spring, however, the only memorable action occurred in the last few restart attempts. At least this race showed improvement, even if only a little.

Paint Scheme of the Race

With the season only four races young, we still get to see the on-track debut of schemes announced during the offseason. One scheme that lived up to its debut covered an RFK Racing Ford.

Consumer Cellular, Brad Keselowski and RFK Racing creatively debuted their scheme with a convertible Next Gen car in the offseason. While the racecar this weekend featured a full roof, the scheme looked fantastic — as did the unique show car that accompanies it.

Alex Bowman’s Ally Best Friends car always treats the fans in the Phoenix spring race, and this year continued the trend. The multicolored paws and the adorable pets certainly help this car stand out on the race track.

What’s Next?

The NASCAR Cup Series travels to Bristol Motor Speedway. This spring, though, the dirt is gone and the concrete will see the sun once again. The Food City 500 begins Sunday, March 17 at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

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Bill B

It wasn’t a terrible race, but it wasn’t the greatest either. The saving grace were the couple of rapid cautions early in the 3rd stage that resulted in several different strategies with respect to pitting.

I’m glad there wasn’t a late caution, it allowed all the different strategies to play out and reward those that played their cards right with good finishes.

Really good day for RFK. I sure would like to see Brad break through one of these weeks.

The real test for the short track package comes this weekend at Bristol.

Echo

The headline says it all. Only Phoenix counts. The new Toyota looked great at Phoenix didn’t it. So Denny just has to make it to Phoenix and he has his best chance at a championship. Larson and Byron crew chiefs need to concentrate on getting Chevy’s close to equal with Toyota at Phoenix somehow without actually practicing there. I’m cheering for Denny to choke before the final 4.

Bill B

Who are you kidding?

You and I cheer for Hamlin to choke every week. 😃

And isn’t it wonderful when he does?

Kevin in SoCal

Y’all are brutal. :)

wildcatsfan2016

count me in on the cheering for Denny to choke – every single race! LOL

John

While its easy to broad brush the event, it seemed the only cars that could pass anyone were the Toyotas. Most of the others gained positions through pit strategy and good pit work. Buescher and Brad K moved some, but not much. Same is true of Larson and Blaney. Odd that none of the dominant brand were taken back to the R&D Center as they stood out as being a cut above the others. As Denny said before the race, they need more horsepower on the shorter tracks and Doug Yates is saying it can be done in short order without an increase in cost. An undertray is a $35,000 part.
Either add horsepower or open up the tuning envelope before the ratings decline. I love the sport, but it needs to focus on its core product of racing.

Dan

Are you kidding? Four races in and you’re wondering if the 22 team is ready to push the panic button? Come on. That team is very capable of winning races at any track. Remember “win and you’re in”. Now Dillon is a
different story. He has a difficult time winning anywhere except at Daytona. And at Daytona he was like any winner there. Being at the right place at the right time.

DoninAjax

Watching Gragson racing the other cars brought back memories of Earnhardt and Pennington at Darlington.

JD Brewski

Not saying that Gragson is anyway in Earnhardt’s league, but he can wheel and he has demonstrated some of the same traits – aggressive, willing to use a chrome horn here and there, a fight or 2, controversial comments, race winner. Lets face it in this unfortunate age we live in today, Dale Sr., under the same rules would have likely been suspended/fired in those early days more that a few times too. He would not have been the only one. Miss those times and I am not that old – is 55 old? LOL

Last edited 1 month ago by JD Brewski
wildcatsfan2016

ha ha JD, no, IMO 55 is NOT old!

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