NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions at Phoenix: Busch’s Return and Harvick’s Quest for Four

The second leg of NASCAR’s new look western swing is on tap for this weekend as the series heads to the quirky Phoenix Int’l Raceway in Avondale, AZ. Phoenix is one of the few truly unique tracks left on the circuit, as it’s slightly banked, dog-leg layout has no equal in auto racing. No track in the sport is anything quite like it.

Of course, unique tracks tend to be challenging, and Phoenix is no different. It is thus no surprise that a man by the name of Kevin Harvick, statistically the best driver in NASCAR right now, has utterly dominated at the facility in recent years. Could Harvick do the unthinkable and win a fourth straight race at Phoenix (and grab his second victory in two weeks)? The rest of the Sprint Cup field is nervously asking that very question right now (along with many others), and you should too. Here’s a summary of what to watch for in Sunday’s 312 mile contest.

1. Can Kevin Harvick go 4-4 at Phoenix?

Considering how unstoppable Kevin Harvick has been as of late, it must be pretty sobering for the of the field to know that he is entering his best race track this weekend. Indeed, Kevin Harvick is better than everyone else on the planet at Phoenix Int’l Raceway and it is not even close. Harvick has won four out of the past five races at Phoenix and generally has done so in dominant fashion. Harvick is the prohibitive favorite every time the series comes here, everyone knows that and it is not news to anyone that has been paying attention to this series for any length of time.

No, the scariest part of Sunday’s race, as far as Harvick is concerned, is the sheer amount of momentum that he is carrying into this weekend’s race. Harvick has finished in the top-2 in the last six Sprint Cup points races stretching back into 2014. He has three wins in that timeframe as well. The man is on a run that we haven’t seen in this series since the height of Jimmie Johnson’s late 2000s dominance.

So is Kevin Harvick going to grab his fourth Phoenix trophy in a row this weekend? Provided something screwy doesn’t happen (i.e. mechanical failure), it is about as sure a bet as there is in this sport.

 

  1.  How will Kurt Busch fare in his first post-suspension race?

 The folks at Stewart-Haas Racing sure do love the headlines, don’t they? The team’s drivers have been the focus of every media story possible over the past three years, and that will once again be the case this weekend. While the team’s ace driver Kevin Harvick is flying high, team driver Kurt Busch will simply be looking to get his season started. Busch was finally granted a revocation of his suspension from the sport this week and thus will return to the seat of his No. 41 machine on Sunday. Busch was exonerated from any wrongdoing in his domestic violence case last week, and thus can enter this weekend with a clear head and a focus on the future.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Kurt Busch is returning to NASCAR this Sunday. But will he still be the same driver he once was? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Now, the question is whether or not Kurt Busch the race car driver can get his career back on track. Despite making the Chase courtesy of an out-of-nowhere win at Martinsville last year, Busch had a resoundingly lackluster season in 2014 and generally was far off the pace of his teammate Kevin Harvick. Busch has an even larger hill to climb this season as he tries to overcome last year’s on-track malaise, as he has a three-race absence to make up for points-wise.

Busch thus will absolutely need to deliver a strong run on Sunday if he has any hope of returning to the Chase this season. His attempt to dig out of his points hole will be a key story to watch all season long, and it starts this Sunday at 3:30 pm EST. If Busch is going to maintain a place in this sport despite his clearly documented off-track issues, his on-track performance will have to be up to par. It’ll be interesting to see if he can get off on the right foot in Phoenix.

  1. Will the new rules package perform well on a “driver’s track”?

 So far, NASCAR’s new downforce-track aero package has produced racing that is largely similar to the last year’s aero package. Given that this was NASCAR’s goal in a “stopgap” year of sorts aero wise (the big changes are coming in 2016), I’d say that’s pretty encouraging.

Of course, as most experienced race-watchers know, different aero packages yield differing results on different tracks. For instance: last year’s aero package performed notoriously poorly on flat tracks. Aero-tight was a big deal at flat tracks like Phoenix in 2014 (and in 2013 as well), creating many processional-esque races on such circuits. Given that the 2015 package yielded similar results on 1.5 milers as last year’s package did, could flat track see a similar trend?

My guess actually happens to be “no.” I personally believe that this current aero package is well-suited to a place like Phoenix, and I think you’ll see that bear out on Sunday. The cars are much, much more tail-happy this year courtesy of reduced rear downforce. That means the drivers’ cars will be trending looser as opposed to tight, thus reducing the propensity for aero-tightness which hurt the racing on such tracks last year. Plus, with corner speeds up across the board this year, that should be beneficial to tire falloff, which, when present, always increases the quality of the on-track product.

All told, I think this aero package will fit Phoenix nicely, but we’ll have to obviously wait until Sunday to see if my hunch is correct.

 

  1. Can Brad Keselowski get back on track?

Two weeks in a row, I predicted that Brad Keselowski was going to be a force to be reckoned with. And two weeks in a row, I was proven very wrong. Thus far in 2015, Brad Keselowski and the #2 crew have looked out to lunch, hardly even resembling the team from last year that won six races. On top of that, crew chief Paul Wolfe was found to be monkeying around in the gray area again, thus placing him on probation until December 31st. What gives with this team?

Insiders suggest that this new rules package has thrown the team for a loop, as the team has been unable to find a setup that works for Keselowski’s driving style. Being that this is Week 4 of the season, if something is not figured out for Keselowski by the end of Sunday’s race, history shows that the team may not science out the problem until mid-season.

With this in mind, I feel as though Mr. Keselowski will be an interesting driver to watch on Sunday. If his #2 team is unable to put a raceable car underneath him for a fourth straight week, it could be a sign that all is not well in the #2 camp.

 

Matt Stallknecht’s Fantasy Picks for the 2015 CampingWorld.com 500k

This year on Four Burning Questions, I will share my fantasy picks from the Frontstretch Fantasy NASCAR League, located here on NASCAR.com. Here are my picks from this week. Join the league and see if you can beat me!

  • Kevin Harvick ($28.25) – See Question 1. If you don’t pick him up this week, you are a fool.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($27.75) – Three weeks, three top 5s. Junior and Co, appeared to be primed for another deep Chase run, and he may just lock himself in for good on Sunday. He’s the only guy who could feasibly challenge the #4 car.
  • Denny Hamlin ($26.00) – He’s slightly overvalued at $26.00, but he’s one of the best flat-track drivers on the circuit and is a former Phoenix winner. Give him a shot.
  • Justin Allgaier ($9.75) – Phoenix is a driver’s track, and Allgaier displayed an aptitude for such facilities in his rookie season last year. For a dirt cheap price, he’s a great longshot play as Phoenix is one of the few tracks where his team can compete.
  • David Ragan ($10.75) It was bound to take a few weeks for Ragan to click with his new team, and as such I think Week 3 (this week) could be the one where he finally delivers. It’s a slight longshot, but I’m calling a top-10 for Ragan this Sunday along with a whole bunch of value for his fantasy owners.

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