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The second race of this year's west coast swing is set Sunday with the TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix. (Photo: Getty Images)

West Coast Swing Rolls to ISM Raceway

The second race of this year’s West Coast Swing is set for Sunday with the TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

The one-mile desert oval presents an interesting challenge to Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams with its unique layout and the fast-paced nature of racing.

Kevin Harvick has put together back-to-back dominating performances at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway to win two of the first three races to start the season. However, Harvick was penalized with the loss of 20 driver and 7 playoff points following a L1-level penalty for two violations found during teardown at the NASCAR R&D Center (Read More). He comes to ISM Raceway looking to become the first driver since Joey Logano in 2015 to win three straight.

Based on his past ISM Raceway performance, Harvick has a more than fair shot at accomplishing the feat.  In addition to his series-high eight Cup wins, Harvick has four NASCAR Camping World Truck Series wins at Phoenix and one in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. His Truck Series wins came in 2002, 2003, 2008 and 2009. His lone Xfinity win came in 2006.

ISM Raceway: Schedule | Entry List | Past Winners

However, Harvick is taking nothing for granted.

“We’ve been in this position before, and you have to keep pushing forward to try to keep your advantage of things that are working well for you, but you also have to find out what your weaknesses are,” he said. “This weekend, we’re going to a flat track, and we didn’t run well there in the spring. We ran better in the fall but not like we expect to run. So that’s an important playoff race.

“So we have to figure out how to motivate everybody to keep pushing forward, to not sit idle in the things that we’re doing, and become complacent in the things that you’re doing because it’s good enough right now but it won’t be when you get to summertime.”

Last year’s spring Phoenix race saw Ryan Newman get a win thanks to late strategy. The Richard Childress Racing driver would welcome a repeat trip to Victory Lane.

“For me it was finally getting the monkey off my back so to speak,” Newman recalled of last year’s win. “It seemed like the last three years at RCR we kept building a bigger monkey to get off our backs. To win at Phoenix in the fourth race of the season with two new engineers and other new people on our 31 team, plus so many other people on our team that had never won a Cup race before, was truly an achievement for all of us.”

Newman isn’t the only Chevy driver feeling optimistic. Despite the manufacturer camp getting off to a relatively slow start with the transition from the SS model to the Camaro ZL1, drivers believe there is progress ahead.

“Every outing with this new Lowe’s for Pros Camaro ZL1 we are learn more about it,” said Jimmie Johnson, who is a four-time Phoenix winner.

“We still have some work to do ourselves with the set-up of the car but there is a great vibe with some occasional grinning in our garage. Phoenix has turned into an aero track with the repave and higher speeds. Last week at Vegas I was in a lot of different aero situations that I started to get very comfortable with and kept charging and driving through. We are working our guts out to get back to our winning ways.”

Last year’s series champion Martin Truex Jr. is hoping to find his first win of 2018 this season. After a career-best third place finish last fall at ISM Raceway, the Furniture Row Racing driver is confident about his chances on Sunday.

“We’ve made a lot of progress with our short track program and hopefully it will continue to get better this year, starting this weekend at Phoenix,” Truex said. “We had a good run there in the fall last year and had a shot at winning.

“I would say the spring and fall races at Phoenix are pretty similar but the mindset early in the season is different. Running at a short track for the first time in the season gives you an idea where you stack up. You want to have a strong run in the first race at Phoenix so you know what to take there for the fall race.”

Motor Racing Network’s live coverage of Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 begins at 2:30 p.m. ET. MRN will also broadcast qualifying on Friday at 5 p.m. ET along with all practice sessions for the Monster Energy Cup Series.