Back to school as Phoenix hosts NASCAR Cup Series

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The fourth race of the NASCAR Cup Series season takes us to Phoenix Raceway’s flat 1-mile layout for the final leg of the 3-race West Coast swing where the main story all week will be regarding the new race package unveiled for these types of tracks.

It’s an unknown which makes it just as difficult for the oddsmaker to create a line as it is for the bettor to make a wager before Friday’s practice without seeing how the cars race.

I asked a driver after Sunday’s Fontana race how big of a difference from the 2019 race package on the smaller tracks would be to what we see this weekend at Phoenix, and he simply replied that “It’s a huge deal. Start over,” implying whatever I was trying to figure out I need to go back to the drawing board if simply looking at 2019 results.

I had figured that since aerodynamics on the short tracks aren’t as big of a deal as they are on the 1.5-mile track and larger than the alterations on the new package wouldn’t be that significant, but I was wrong. Here’s a look at some of the changes from 2019 to 2020 on the race packages used on 1-mile tracks and shorter in addition to the road courses.

* Rear spoiler drops from 8 inches tall to 2.75 inches.

* Front splitter’s overhang is only a quarter-inch down from 2 inches and the wings are now 2-inches down from 10.5 inches.

* Radiator pan had its vertical fencing removed in an attempt to reduce front-end down-force.

The new package is similar to what they had in 2017 and 2018. The 2020 changes were well on their way before the 2019 season ended, but when a Joe Gibbs Racing driver wins nine of the 14 races using the race package, it’s time to even the playing field as other organizations surely complained about the obvious edge.

Martin Truex Jr. led the way with five wins using the 2019 race package which included three straight wins using it at Richmond, Dover, and Sonoma during the summer. He’d win at Richmond again and then win at Martinsville during the playoffs, leading 464 of the 500 laps. His sweep at Richmond and the Martinsville win was his first three career wins on short tracks.

Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Chase Elliott all had two wins apiece using the package last season while Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski each had one win. Busch won the spring Phoenix race and Hamlin won a do-or-die race at Phoenix during the Playoffs to advance to the Championship 4.

But apparently, none of that stuff means anything for this race. It’s back to the drawing board for NASCAR 101 where our starting point to making odds or betting the race before practices centers on past history and not only Phoenix, but also flat tracks with similar set-up requirements such as New Hampshire, and Richmond. Those three tracks are all different in configuration but the size and limited banking make them fairly equal and throughout NASCAR history with all race packages, if a driver does well on one, they’ll do well on the other two during a season.

So here we go, NASCAR Betting 101, let the Phoenix edition begin.

To get this lesson underway we need to start with Harvick, who has been racing at Phoenix Raceway his entire racing career at all levels and that preparation, along with fast cars, has helped make him the most successful driver in Phoenix history. The Bakersfield native owns the track record for wins (9), top-fives (17), top-10s (23), and laps led (1,595). It just suits his driving style, but since the tracks made changes to the layout in the summer of 2018, Harvick has yet to win. 

His last win was in the spring of 2018. Did the changes take away his edge? I think I’ve heard him suggest that was the case last season.

Since the changes to the track, Kyle Busch won the first two races to give him three for his career. His first win came back in 2005 when he was driving for Hendrick Motorsports in the No. 5. He also has 11 wins at Phoenix in the Xfinity Series and two others in the Truck Series. In 29 Cup starts at Phoenix he’s averaged a 10.7 finish.

Jimmie Johnson is a four-time winner at Phoenix, but the last came in 2009 to end a streak of four wins in five starts there. He has only led four laps between his last six starts with no finish better than eighth, which coincides with the Hendrick demise the past three seasons. The package used the past two weeks at Las Vegas and Fontana doesn’t mean much for Phoenix, and he was a solid contender in both races, but what it shows me is that his team is ready to roll with all packages.

In the past, it was always Hendrick Motorsports that had the spending advantage with testing a new package to find an edge. Kyle Busch was part of the early movement with Hendrick when they clobbered the competition when the Car of Tomorrow (COT) was unveiled and Hendrick dominated ending with Johnson winning one of his seven-season championships.

Hamlin had all the pressure on his shoulders last fall and came away with his second Phoenix win leading a race-high 143 laps. Of all the drivers not looking forward to the race package change on these tracks, Hamlin should have the biggest beef because he had top-five finishes in 12 of the 14 races.

Those four drivers detailed are the only actives with multiple Phoenix wins. Kurt Busch and Joey Logano each have one win and that’s it.

This new race package could unveil a new Phoenix winner, such as Tucson native Alex Bowman, who won last week at Fontana or his Hendrick teammate William Byron who won an Xfinity Series race there in 2017. 

A long look into your betting equation should also consider Elliott and fellow Chevy driver Kyle Larson should also be given a thorough review after practices.

And let’s not forget that Ryan Blaney was third in both Phoenix races last season. He’s looked to have the best car or at least a top-2 car, and victory escaped him. His time is coming.

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