Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Racing at NASCAR’s highest level takes both talent and equipment. A good driver in a not-so-good car will generally struggle, and that’s something a lot of drivers face every week, even those who race for the sport’s best-funded teams fight their equipment at times. One test of a driver is whether he can do more than expected with his car, and that’s exactly what Matt DiBenedetto did on Sunday.
DiBenedetto’s BK Racing team has been working tirelessly to improve their equipment, and an influx of cars from the now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing has made a difference, as has the addition of veteran David Ragan. But DiBenedetto showed his considerable talent on Sunday, giving BK Racing its first top-20 finish at a non-restrictor-plate track since Oct. 2014 at Martinsville with Cole Whitt. DiBenedetto drove like a veteran and led his team to its strongest finish in years. That’s a good day no matter how you slice it.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Phoenix was a new test of the 2016 low-downforce package, and it passed with flying colors on the flat mile oval. The racing is the closest it has been to the boom years of the late 1990s, and it’s allowing teams to really show their mettle at different tracks. Will the improved racing start a new boom for the sport? And if it does, what kind of fan will it bring?
The fans who came to the sport in the early 2000s are a different breed than previous generations of fans, even the ones who did stick around after NASCAR was no longer the cool thing at the water cooler. The new breed of fan lapped up the gimmicks NASCAR was feeding them and asked for more.
Will the improved racing with a throwback feel bring back a generation of fans who felt shunned by the new NASCAR? Or will it bring a wave of viewers seeking for a neatly packaged sport like some others have become? The future is looking brighter than ever, but will the past be all but erased on the upturn of the tide?
Where… did the pole sitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Kyle Busch was easily in control early on, and it looked as if he was on his way to an easy weekend sweep with a strong car. But after he lost the lead to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on Lap 75, Busch was able to lead just one more lap and was never able to make a race of it for the win. He still finished fourth, making his weekend average finish a solid 2.5, so it’s not like he faded out of the picture. He just didn’t have the best car when it counted.
Kevin Harvick, on the other hand, certainly ran OK early and cracked the top 10 by Lap 40 after starting 18th, but didn’t have that winning look until later in the game. Once he got the lead, it was typical Harvick at Phoenix, and already the track’s winningest driver, added to his total with win number eight.
When… did it all go sideways?
Phoenix isn’t a particularly long race at just over 300 miles, but it is a difficult one. The track isn’t quite like any other on the schedule, and it can be hard to get a car to handle at the flat one-miler. There weren’t any big incidents, but several teams faced little issues that ruined their days.
Both Ryan Newman and teammate Paul Menard suffered right front tire failures from a melted bead. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. suffered a similar failure of the same tire. Brad Keselowski blew his right-rear tire later in the race. Casey Mears’ car lost all power mid-run and while it resolved once, it didn’t the second time and required several laps behind the wall to fix a loose wire.
Engine gremlins sent Cole Whitt’s team packing early. Kasey Kahne’s tire failure changed the complexion of the race with just five laps to go. With that exception, perhaps, none of the issues were a game-changer in terms of the entire race. But they will have teams digging through their notebooks when they visit the other flat tracks this season.
Why… did Kevin Harvick win the race?
There aren’t many worse sights in racing than being the leader on a very late caution and watching nearly the entire field peel off to pit road for fresh rubber while you stay out. That was Harvick’s view Sunday as he and Earnhardt stayed on track while everyone else hit the pits, and only his tenaciousness and a good restart on old tires kept the No. 4 car in front when he and Edwards crossed the line.
Simply put, Edwards ran out of real estate on the final lap of the race. Harvick could not have held his charging rival off for another few yards, let alone another circuit. The two put on quite a show—Edwards shoved the blocking Harvick up the track and gave him a little side slam coming by for good measure. Harvick countered with a body slam of his own, and that was enough to keep Edwards behind him to the checkered flag in the closes finish Phoenix has ever seen.
How… did the little guys do?
The three best:
Wood Brothers Racing; Ryan Blaney: Remember, this team is racing on tracks they have not visited regularly in years and are outrunning a whole lot of teams who have. Some of that’s due to strong ties with Team Penske. But a lot of credit goes to the very talented Blaney and the team for making it very clear that they’re here to play every week. They’re looking a little like Furniture Row Racing looked early last year, and we all know how that story ended.
JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger: This team kicks off another strong seasonwith another top-20 run. They’re capable of this type of finish every week, though competition is fierce for 15th-20th on a weekly basis. It’s likely that they’ll need a win to make the Chase unless they steu up another notch, but they are capable of winning, especially at the road courses where Allmendinger is stellar. Regardless, they’re off to a strong start to 2016.
BK Racing; Matt DiBenedetto: Eventually, DiBenedetto’s considerable talent was going to shine through, and it did this weekend. DiBenedetto qualified a strong 23rd and used good strategy to stay on the lead lap Sunday, besting most of his small-team peers and a lot of bigger teams, too. Teammate David Ragan had a strong run as well, and the team left Phoenix looking better than it has in a long time. Is this they year they com into their own?
All the rest:
|21||Ryan Blaney||Wood Brothers Racing||Motorcraft / Quick Lane Ford||12th||10th
Another strong day for this team—they are looking like early possibility for Chase
|47||AJ Allmendinger||JTG Daugherty Racing||Fry’s / Scott Products Chevy||22nd||17th
Reporter wheel issues during second tire run of the day; car was falling off fast on long runs
|83||Matt DiBenedetto||BK Racing||Schluter Systems Toyota||23rd||20th
Solid qualifying effort and a smart race-is BK turning a corner with DiBenedetto leading the way?
|23||David Ragan||BK Racing||Dr. Pepper Toyota||29th||24th
Solid race all day and a good finish for this team-can they keep it up?
|38||Landon Cassill||Front Row Motorsports||Snap Fitness Ford||27th||25th
Decent qualifying run, made steady gains through the race for a good finish
|95||Michael McDowell||Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing||Thrivent Financial Ford||33rd||26th
Had possible engine issue that team thinks was broken header; handling did improve throughout the race-good day overall
|7||Regan Smith||Tommy Baldwin Racing||APC Chevy||31st||28th
Solid top-30 run is something to build on—team called a smart race.
|34||Chris Buescher||Front Row Motorsports||Dockside Logistics Ford||32nd||30th
Very loose early; never got handling where they needed to.
|15||Clint Bowyer||HScott Motorsports||5-hour Energy Chevy||35th||31st
It’s puzzling that this team is struggling as much as they are—ran better with Allgaier in ‘15
|32||Joey Gase||GO FAS Racing||Donate Life America Ford||39th||32nd
Gase brings sponsor dollars to the table, and had his career-best finish. Should team consider running him full-time?
|46||Michael Annett||HScott Motorsports||Pilot Flying J Chevy||38th||33rd
Crash early in the weekend put team behind with backup car
|30||Josh Wise||The Motorsports Group||Curtis Key Plumbing Chevy||37th||34th
Team putting up good effort to make West Coast races…is return enough to sustain them, though?
|13||Casey Mears||Germain Racing||GEICO Chevy||25th||35th
Mears said car was “terrible” early; electrical issue before halfway-no power and trouble diagnosing; spent multiple laps behind the wall to fix-team can’t afford another sub-par race.
|98||Cole Whitt||Premium Motorsports||Chevy||34th||36th
It may not look like it, but Whitt is getting a lot out of this car but retired early with engine issue; team might have been better off selling their charter outright and using money to run a competitive NXS team