Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: Phoenix’s Dramatic History

NASCAR rolled into 2020 with a brand-new venue for its three series’ finales: Phoenix Raceway.

The 1-mile oval that sits in the desert in Avondale, Ariz., has been named a number of things, beginning with Phoenix International Raceway. Then it changed to FasTrack International Speedway for a few years, then it was sold and returned to being called PIR until 2017. During that span, its moniker temporarily changed to Jeff Gordon Raceway for the penultimate race of the 2015 season ahead of Gordon’s retirement from full-time racing.

Then ISM came calling, and the track was called ISM Raceway for two seasons before going back to its roots, sort of, with Phoenix Raceway sticking since early 2020.

That same year, Phoenix began hosting the championship races for NASCAR’s Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck series divisions. It’s also had a new look for a little over a decade now, as the grass on the inside of the track’s dogleg was removed.

The change came on the heels of the 2011 Subway Fresh Fit 500, a race marred by a massive 14-car crash on the backstretch. Brian Vickers got loose while racing with Matt Kenseth, sending the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota sliding and the field stacking up behind him. It’s one of the better examples of the accordion style of crash, culminating in Travis Kvapil’s massive impact into the inside wall that completely demolished the No. 38’s nose.

Since then, Phoenix has been the site of some incredible moments (chief among them Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards’ photo finish in 2016) and some Cinderella stories (hey, we’re in March!), primarily Alex Bowman‘s near-total upset of the field in the same year. The most recent winner of the current season won the pole for the fall race, led 194 laps and seemed to be on his way to a victory while subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. It would’ve been in the same vein as Jamie McMurray’s stunner while filling in for Sterling Marlin back in 2002, but late contact with Kenseth hindered the No. 88 and relegated him to a still-impressive sixth-place finish.

If all that isn’t dramatic and chaotic enough, the championship has been decided in the Arizona desert each of the past two years. Even before then, things hit the fan late in races:

  • In 2012, Brad Keselowski was leading the championship standings when disaster nearly struck late: Danica Patrick spun with a little over a lap left, yet there was no caution as her wounded No. 10 drove across the start/finish line. With a line of oil leaking from her spin in the turn all the way down the frontstretch, Ryan Newman spun in the mess and took Paul Menard and Regan Smith with him, Menard crashing into Patrick hard enough to send the rear of the No. 10 skyward.
  • Just two years later, Newman used the chrome horn to move Kyle Larson in 2014, locking the No. 31 into the Championship 4 as the No. 42 smacked the outside wall.
  • Kenseth won in his penultimate start with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2017, scoring an emotional victory in the process as his final full season in NASCAR came to a close.
  • Denny Hamlin was clutch in 2019, emerging victorious from a must-win situation at the track and securing a spot at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

2020’s spring race featured a Joey Logano win, and he had the chance to double up and win his second title in the process when he qualified for the Championship 4, albeit with a worldwide pandemic striking between the two races.

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The No. 22 led the second-most laps, but it was Chase Elliott — who had been clutch a week earlier in the second-to-last race, like Hamlin the year before — who led just 28 more than Logano to claim his first and his family’s second Cup title.

And, one year later, Larson entered double-digit wins in 2021 and won the championship in the process at Phoenix. The No. 5 team led laps in the triple digits — the only driver in the event to do so — as three of the title contenders each put up totals in the category north of 70. The lone outlier was Hamlin, in his third consecutive Championship 4 appearance, who led zero. That title continues to elude the longtime driver of JGR’s No. 11.

Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. were the two other contenders; Elliott finished fifth, last of the quartet, while Truex made a run at Larson in the closing laps. The No. 19 couldn’t quite close, though, and the Hendrick Motorsports newcomer claimed his first Cup crown.

Teams typically head to Phoenix in the spring with the mindset of gathering information ahead of possibly competing for a title in November. This time, that will still be a factor, but will be combined with still becoming acclimated to the Next Gen car, analyzing the parity so far this season and preparing for a possibly way more tumultuous season finale in 2022.

About the author

Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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