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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Instacart 500 at Phoenix

What happened? 

Martin Truex Jr. won the Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday (March 14) after leading the final 25 laps following a pass on the last restart. 

Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

Before the race even started, the Hendrick Motorsports trio of Elliott (unapproved adjustments), Kyle Larson (two tech failures) and William Byron (two tech failures) were sent to the rear. Keselowski led the first two laps from the pole before Hamlin took over on lap 3 and led until the competition caution at lap 30. Before the caution, Truex kissed the wall and was none too pleased with his car.

Everyone pitted under caution and Larson, who worked his way up to ninth after stops, was nabbed with a speeding penalty. Keselowski retook the lead and held it through the restart but Ryan Blaney quickly got by him. Just a few laps later, Alex Bowman backed into the wall following contact with Ross Chastain and Austin Dillon.

Blaney continued to comfortably pace the field until the final laps of the stage when things got tight. Blaney led Logano, Keselowski, Hamlin and Elliott and all were within a second of the lead coming to the green-and-white checkers.

Logano got to the front on the restart, but another quick caution came 15 laps later when Cody Ware dumped Anthony Alfredo. Both of them retired to the garage following the incident.

The remainder of the stage stayed green, with green flag pit stops coming at the midway point. During this long run, Truex and Larson weaved their way through the field and asserted their strength as Logano continued to lead. On the pit stops, Larson was again penalized for speeding. He was able to unlap himself and get up to 13th by the end of the stage.

Logano survived a scare on the stage three restart after contact by Truex from behind.

The No. 22 stayed out front for 29 laps until Truex finally got by him with 88 laps to go.

Everyone cycled through green flag stops cleanly with just over 50 laps remaining. Shortly after the cycle, Tyler Reddick cut a tire and got into the wall, bringing out the sixth caution of the day. Everyone on the lead lap pitted except Bubba Wallace, who was running seventh at the time of caution. He predictably had trouble fending off the cars with fresher tires.

Keselowski and Logano traded the lead until Logano took control with 39 to go. The final caution came with 30 to go, as Kyle Busch was spun by Chastain.

On the race’s final restart, Truex powered by Logano – a move we hadn’t seen anyone make on the leader all day. Truex cruised to the victory after taking the lead and was never threatened down the stretch. It was the 28th win of Truex’s career, tying him with Carl Edwards and Rex White for 28th on the all-time list. Twenty-six of his 28 wins have come since 2015.

Who stood out?

Truex reminded everyone that he is still a contender with his performance at Phoenix. He’s been quiet to start the season with finishes of 23rd, 12th, third and sixth. Even dating back to last year, Truex had struggled to close out races. He had a stretch of eight straight top fives over the summer but hadn’t won a race since Martinsville last June.

Truex and James Small, who took over for Cole Pearn in 2020, just haven’t seemed to click the way Truex and Pearn did. Now, after overcoming adversity early at Phoenix and coming back to win, they might be on the right track. The team has to finish races better in 2021 if they hope to get back to the championship level they had at Furniture Row Racing and Sunday was a promising sign.

Logano was the strongest for most of the day, which bodes well for November. Similar to the championship race in November, he just couldn’t close the deal. Unlike that title race, Logano seemed to be the dominant car on Sunday. He led the most laps (143) and was in control for most of the day until the latter stages.

Finishing second won’t leave Logano too happy, but it’s still a positive sign for the 2021 title race. Logano will obviously be in the mix to make the Championship 4, and there aren’t many drivers who have been as consistent as him at Phoenix since the 2018 reconfiguration. In his last five Phoenix starts, Logano has a win, three top-fives and five top-10s.

Larson probably passed more cars than anyone on Sunday and definitely learned a lot for the playoffs. Self-inflicted wounds hurt him all day, as he had to drive through the field three (yes, THREE) times. He was slated to start second before failing pre-race inspection twice. Throughout the day, he had two speeding penalties – one under yellow and one under green.

Luckily for Larson, he’s locked into the playoffs already and his team could use Sunday as a test session for November. In many ways, no one learned more about the track than Larson. He now knows how his car handled out front, in the middle and in the back. He overcame more than anyone and still finished seventh. The No. 5 will need a cleaner effort in November if it hopes to win a championship.

Who fell flat?

Kyle Busch’s rocky start to the season continued with an eventful day at Phoenix. He was running in the top 10 until an uncontrolled tire penalty on a green flag stop in the second stage. That put him two laps down and he ultimately couldn’t recover. Busch had contact late in the race and was forced to pit under green again.

To make a bad day even worse, he then got spun after contact with Chastain. Busch is still outside the playoff picture after five races. While there’s still not much concern that he’ll actually miss the playoffs, it’s definitely not how this team needed to start 2021 with new crew chief Ben Beshore. In his fifth race with Adam Stevens, Busch won. Now, Busch has won just two of his last 63 starts since Pocono in 2019.

Matt DiBenedetto is going to need stronger runs if he wants to sneak into the playoffs on points again. When you dig yourself the hole that this team did in the first three weeks, you just can’t afford to run in the mid-teens. He has gradually improved in the first five races – 33rd, 37th, 28th, 16th, 14th – but that’s not going to cut it. DiBenedetto sits 28th in points, 51 points behind 16th.

Perhaps most discouraging for the Wood Brothers team is how good his de facto teammates ran. Logano led the most laps, Keselowski was in the top five all day and Blaney won the first stage. You can’t expect the satellite team to be as good as the main teams, but you’d like to hope it would be a little closer. And it has to be, especially with DiBenedetto’s future uncertain.

What did this race prove?

After five races, the big boys are finally coming to play. We’ve seen flashes of perennial contenders up front this season, but Phoenix really accentuated it. The top six consisted of five champions and Hamlin. The Championship 4 contenders from 2020 finished second through fifth. The only teams in the top 10 were Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing.

No surprises, nothing out of the ordinary. A few underdog drivers impressed at times – Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Erik Jones come to mind – but it was largely a day ruled by the sport’s elite. 

Phoenix Raceway needs a lot of restarts for the racing to reach its full potential. It’s a fine track and it can produce some solid racing. The fact is, though, Phoenix is just way better on restarts. That’s where the track shines, as fans can see drivers fan out five-, six- and seven-wide. There were a few restarts in that final stage where we saw the track’s potential.

None of this is to say Phoenix isn’t an entertaining track. I appreciate the uniqueness it brings to a schedule that’s generally been dominated by 1.5-mile ovals. This is simply to point out that more cautions mean more entertainment at Phoenix because when the cars get spread out it further shows how tough it can be to pass there.

Paint scheme of the race

McDonald’s has a long history of great designs dating back to Bill Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray, among others. Wallace’s No. 23 car at Phoenix is right up there with the best. I love the hood design with the yellow stripes that look like fries sticking out of a box.

Better than last year?

Last year, there were some good battles for the lead in the first stage between Elliott and Harvick. Late in the stage, Hamlin, Blaney and Keselowski wrecked and essentially ended Hamlin and Blaney’s days. The second stage – similar to 2021 – had a long green flag run where a Hendrick car (in 2020 it was Elliott), had to pit twice under green. The final stage was caution-filled, with Logano holding off multiple challengers late to secure his second win of 2020.

This year, the racing wasn’t quite as good. Once the leader got out front, it seemed pretty tough for second place to get within striking distance. Truex passed Logano under green once due to a lap car slowing the No. 22’s momentum. Overall, there just wasn’t enough green flag passing up front for it to compare to 2020. Sunday was a solid race – nothing more, nothing less.

Playoff picture

Five races, five different winners. Truex, Larson, Byron, Christopher Bell and Michael McDowell are “locked” into the playoffs, but we’ve already got five of 16 playoff spots. Finishing the regular season with more than 16 race winners still looks as possible as ever.

Through the first eight races of 2021 (including the Clash and two Duels), we have seen eight different winners. The last time that happened was 2017. If we get a ninth different winner next weekend, that’ll be the first time since 2001 we had nine winners in nine races (again, this includes the Clash and two Duels).

As always, here’s some unexpected things in the standings through five races:

Currently in the playoffs: Ryan Preece (14th), Stenhouse (16th)

Currently out of the playoffs: Bowman (17th), Almirola (26th), DiBenedetto (28th)

What’s next?

The Cup Series returns to the east coast next week with its first trip of the season to Atlanta Motor Speedway. For the first time since 2010, the Georgia track will host two races on the Cup schedule (second race is July 11). The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 will go green Sunday (March 21) at 3 p.m. ET on FOX.

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13 thoughts on “Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Instacart 500 at Phoenix”

  1. i was really surprised there wasn’t a caution late in the race, as i recall maybe custer’s car hitting wall or something and pieces flying into the air.

    kyle busch certainly does not like not having practice and qualifying.

    good to see truex win.

    going to be a stormy week here in GA. hopefully mother nature will smile on nascar.

  2. I thought the race was pretty decent considering the track. Of course restarts are the most exciting part of the race but you could say that about any track in any year.
    I thought the 3 best cars were Logano, Truex and Larson. I am glad one of them won. I was also happy that NASCAR didn’t throw a caution when (Custer? if Janice is right) hit the wall with 10 laps to go, I thought for sure they wood. I am not a fan of crapshoot endings, I like those that deserve a good finish to get a good finish. Cheers to NASCAR for not throwing a caution every time they possibly can. I have noticed this in more that a few cases this year.

    I think DiBenedetto is going to need a win this year if he hopes to make the playoffs. In fact it’s starting to look that way for everyone. I was glad to see Blaney finally win something. Conversely, Kyle Busch continues to be inconsistent from week to week.

    The guys in the booth did not ever become annoying enough for me to mute. I still feel there is a little too much jocularity for my tastes but the goofiness never seems to interfere with what is happening on the track and needs to be communicated to the viewer, so I can deal with it.

  3. Was happy to see Blaney looking strong but just wonder why he seems to struggle as the race nears the end. Hung around the top five most of the race and ended up tenth several seconds back. If the race would have gone many more laps not sure he would have finished there. This seems to happen more often than not. A problem with driver, car, pit crew, crew chief or what? Maybe Todd Gordon and Blaney just aren’t on the same page yet. Seems they’ve had plenty of time to get to that point though. Just sayin’.

  4. Living a 100 miles from the track, I went to a half dozen races in Phoenix in the 1990s. Then I recognized two things. It took longer to go the last mile getting into the parking lot than the first 99 from home. Traffic was a nightmare. Deceptively titled a 500, it is km’s so just 300 miles, it goes pretty quickly. And the races were always snoozers. This race was no different. I set the Xfinity box. Later started to watch the race and went to sleep before the Stage 1 mandatory caution. What’s up with the those anyway? Woke up to the Delete Now screen. Better than Ambien for sure.

    • I have awaken to that Delete Now Screen many times. My dad also use to fall asleep back in the 70’s & 80’s, while I watched every lap. It’s called getting old.

    • traffic at every track used to be horrible. i know when i’d go to dover, a normally 1.5 hr ride took 6-7 hrs to get home, same thing here in atlanta.

      i think those mandatory cautions are cause no practice and qualifying so the teams are allowed to check tires under this caution.

      • Funny to hear about the traffic at Dover – I’d been living in New England and heard all about the nightmare of Dover traffic all my years as a fan. Flash forward to me moving to the area and starting to go at least once a year around 2012. I was expecting a nightmare and surprised to find it not so bad at all. Little did I know it was the beginning of the end. By my last trip in 2017, I parked right next to a gate and I swear leaving afterwards I didn’t even have to stop until I hit the light onto the main road. Home having dinner in the Philly area by 7.

        • Yep nascar took care of that diver traffic. I’ve lived in ga 21 yrs, so it’s been a while since I’ve been there. But trust me it left a lasting impression on me.

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