Phoenix Weekend Story Lines
By: Pete Pistone - @PPistone | MRN.com on March 11, 2016 | 10:15 A.M. EST
Both the XFINITY Series and Sprint Cup Series will be in action this weekend in the “Valley of the Sun." (Photo: Getty Images)
There’s plenty to follow this weekend as NASCAR heads to Phoenix International Raceway.
Both the XFINITY and Sprint Cup Series will be in action in "The Valley of the Sun" as the 2016 swing through the western U.S. moves on from last week’s visit to Las Vegas.
New Rules, New Track
The low-downforce rules package has been in use the last two weeks on 1.5-mile ovals in Atlanta and Vegas. Sunday marks the first time drivers will get a chance to drive with them in place on a one-mile layout.
Opinions vary on whether the new rules will make an impact at PIR.
"I’m hoping it's more of the same where you have the speed drop off, cars will handle worse and the driver has to work harder to maintain lap time," said Kurt Busch. "At a flat track, you don’t get to keep your momentum up."
All Eyes On Harvick
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick aims for his eighth career Phoenix win in Sunday’s Good Sam 500. The 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion has won five of the last seven and four of the last five races held at the one-mile track.
Despite his success, Harvick isn’t taking anything for granted.
"That can be gone at any point," he said. "That’s the hardest thing about having success. You have to have an open mind to try new things, keep moving forward. If you aren't willing to try a fresh approach, then it will get stagnant. You’re going to become stale and get left behind. We go to Phoenix with a fresh start, like you’ve never won there before." (Read More)
Kenseth Looks for Turnaround
Matt Kenseth has suffered through a frustrating season so far after three races. He had a chance to win the Daytona 500 but wound up 14th, and followed that with disappointment at both Atlanta and last week at Las Vegas.
There is optimism from the Kenseth camp this week in Phoenix. He’s a former winner at the track and had a chance to test the new low-downforce package at the track last fall.
"This 2016 aero package will race well at Phoenix because it’s going to put things more into the drivers’ hands," said crew chief Jason Ratcliff. "There was a considerable difference going from the 2015 rules to the 2016 aero package at Phoenix during the test, more than I expected. This weekend at Phoenix will be beneficial for us, knowing Matt’s driving style."
Kyle Busch Still Strong
The defending Sprint Cup champion has picked right up where he left off last season. Busch is the only driver with finishes inside the top five in all three of the opening races.
"Phoenix is a great track for me, but that doesn’t mean we don’t work for it," said Busch, who won a Sprint Cup Series race at PIR in 2009.
Busch, who will also run Saturday’s XFINITY Series race and has won four of the last five series events held at PIR, also has a pair of Camping World Truck Series victories at the track. However, all of that previous success isn’t changing how the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team plans for the weekend.
"We’re going to approach this week’s race at Phoenix the same way we do any other event," crew chief Adam Stevens said. "Although Kyle’s had a lot of success there and we ran strong last fall, it’s our first outing at a "short" track in 2016. This gives us extra motivation to continue building on the strong runs we’ve had the last two weeks, but at a different type of racetrack. However, since we had such a good run last fall, this does give us an opportunity to explore new setup options, and know that we can always go back to what we’ve raced before and be close."
Dillon Brothers in the Spotlight
Austin and Ty Dillon look to make their mark this weekend in Phoenix.
Older brother Austin goes into the weekend on the heels of his comeback fifth-place finish last week at Las Vegas. The 25-year-old Richard Childress Racing driver has opened up his third full-time Cup season with finishes of ninth (Daytona), 11th (Atlanta) and last week’s fifth.
"At one point in time, we were way faster than the leader," Dillon said of his Vegas run. "We put ourselves behind, but we had a shot at the end. If we were good enough to win, we would have done it. We have a little more work to do. A win is in the future, though."
Ty will be doing double duty this weekend, running Saturday’s XFINITY Series race before taking the wheel for the second time this season for the injured Tony Stewart in the SHR No. 14 Chevrolet.
Suarez Looks for More
The first three XFINITY Series races of the season have been won by Sprint Cup Series regulars. However, the series point standings are tight after the opening three events. Daniel Suarez has a three-point lead over Elliott Sadler heading into Saturday’s race with Ty Dillon and Brandon Jones only 11 behind.
"It's too early. We're just three races into the season and with the new Chase format, anything can happen," Suarez said. "You need to win a race to be safe and lock yourself into the Chase. We need to keep working to be consistent, to get more speed and try to win a race to be more comfortable."
Motor Racing Network - "The Voice of NASCAR" - will have live coverage of Sunday's Good Sam 500 beginning at 2:30 p.m. (ET), with live streaming at MRN.com and on the MRN App.