Can-Am 500 Preview: Prelude to the Championship

Can-Am 500 Preview: Prelude to the Championship

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

As the season draws to a close, the Chase for the Monster Energy Cup brings us to Phoenix and ISM Raceway for the prelude to the championship finale. This race marks the cut from the Round of 8 of the Chase to the four-driver Championship round at Homestead. We make a big departure from the 1.5-mile intermediate ovals and come to one of the few flat tracks on the circuit. PIR is an irregular "D" shaped oval with very flat banking in the corners of nine to 11 degrees. The straights are completely flat, and very fast as they carry off into the sweeping corners. It is truly a unique facility among those on the Monster Energy Cup circuit, and very fitting that it plays a key role in the Chase for the Monster Energy Cup championship. The Phoenix oval has undergone several changes since the series last visited earlier this year. The laundry list of changes includes the following:

1. Moving of the start/finish line to the area between the former turn 1 and the dogleg, thus flipping the turn numbering.

2. Reconfiguration of pit road including:

A. Moving the pit entrance down the new backstretch (former front straightaway) and the exit to just past the new start / finish line.

B. Extending pit road stalls around the new turn 4 (former turn 1) and to just past the new start/finish line. The majority of the pit stalls will be on a curve and prior to the start/finish line.

As the season draws to a close, the Chase for the Monster Energy Cup brings us to Phoenix and ISM Raceway for the prelude to the championship finale. This race marks the cut from the Round of 8 of the Chase to the four-driver Championship round at Homestead. We make a big departure from the 1.5-mile intermediate ovals and come to one of the few flat tracks on the circuit. PIR is an irregular "D" shaped oval with very flat banking in the corners of nine to 11 degrees. The straights are completely flat, and very fast as they carry off into the sweeping corners. It is truly a unique facility among those on the Monster Energy Cup circuit, and very fitting that it plays a key role in the Chase for the Monster Energy Cup championship. The Phoenix oval has undergone several changes since the series last visited earlier this year. The laundry list of changes includes the following:

1. Moving of the start/finish line to the area between the former turn 1 and the dogleg, thus flipping the turn numbering.

2. Reconfiguration of pit road including:

A. Moving the pit entrance down the new backstretch (former front straightaway) and the exit to just past the new start / finish line.

B. Extending pit road stalls around the new turn 4 (former turn 1) and to just past the new start/finish line. The majority of the pit stalls will be on a curve and prior to the start/finish line.

C. Tightening of the radius of pit road through the new turn 4 (former turn 1).

Since ISM Raceway is so unique, we have a driver set for this race that is unique as well. Certain drivers thrive on the flat oval in the Arizona desert, while some others would rather be just about anywhere else this weekend but Phoenix. However, one theme will be quite clear. Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Chase Elliott will be driving over each other to secure the final spot in the championship round of the Chase. As a quick glance at the standings shows us, the Monster Energy Cup championship is still up for grabs coming into the Can-Am 500. With the wrecks, pit road penalties and other mayhem of Texas still fresh in our memory, all eyes will be on the Arizona desert this weekend. As pressure advance in the Chase builds, we could see some major fireworks on the race track this Sunday afternoon.

For the first time since March, we're racing at PIR. It was almost eight months ago that the Monster Energy Cup Series ran in the mid-afternoon in the Arizona desert. Even though it has been a long time since drivers made laps at Phoenix, we can still look at the results from the Ticket Guardian 500 for indicators for this weekend. Not only that race, but we'll factor in the last 13 seasons at the Phoenix oval for some ideas of who will run up front this weekend. Current hot streaks will play a part as well in evaluating this weekend's race, but historical stats at this facility are a very valuable tool. Here are the loop stats for the last 27 races at ISM Raceway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kevin Harvick8.26188381,5226,953110.9
Chase Elliott6.81331331401,551110.3
Jimmie Johnson10.46957129056,853107.8
Kyle Busch11.87454318276,778101.1
Denny Hamlin11.55733306715,80496.6
Erik Jones10.01103501,06796.1
Kurt Busch13.56073635285,91995.4
Brad Keselowski14.24322871313,94293.0
Joey Logano14.43771622964,04990.7
Kyle Larson15.416077691,67490.4
Matt Kenseth16.45512552705,22989.6
Martin Truex Jr.16.55182161045,00886.8
Ryan Newman16.37281531285,41586.4
William Byron12.01861521382.2
Ryan Blaney14.8973111,10879.8
Kasey Kahne18.5492200554,19278.8
Jamie McMurray18.3427149313,76778.6
Clint Bowyer18.4490122223,89977.4
Daniel Suarez11.0590038275.7
Aric Almirola16.32021501,53273.0

If anyone hopes to pull a surprise upset in the quest for the championship, Phoenix will play a big part. One driver has won six of the last 10 races at the desert short track, and that would be the driver of the Stewart Haas Racing No. 4 Ford. So you could say that this weekend sets up pretty well for Kevin Harvick in his quest to win a second championship. The Stewart Haas Racing star has won or finished inside the Top-6 in the last 10 Phoenix events. Before we hand the Phoenix trophy to Harvick, let's not rule out Chase Elliott just yet. His back is to the wall and potentially facing Chase elimination at PIR unless he can pull the big upset victory. That will be a powerful motivator for the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 team. While Elliott has never won at Phoenix, he's been strong in all five of his starts at the Desert Jewel. The most recent of these was his third-place qualifying effort and third-place finish there in March. These drivers will be joined by short track specialists Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch in racing for the checkers this weekend. Three of the four are still alive in the Chase, and all but Logano are looking to advance to Homestead with a Phoenix victory or enough points to crack the Top-4 in the standings. One thing is for certain, when the green flag drops at ISM Raceway this Sunday afternoon the fireworks will fly as these drivers compete for the big stakes at the desert oval. We'll examine those championship contending teams who have a lot to race for this weekend at the Phoenix short track and those who could sneak up and surprise the playoff teams.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick - Harvick locked up a berth in the Championship 4 with his win at Texas this past week. A bit of the pressure is now off, but he'd certainly like to ride the momentum of the win into Arizona and make it a two-race win streak going into the season finale at Homestead. Harvick has been the dominant force at this oval since the 2012 season and has the seven victories to prove it. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has a strong career resume at this Arizona short track. He has over 1,500 laps led at this facility and nine total victories. Harvick carries a staggering 10-race Phoenix Top-6 streak into Sunday's Can-Am 500. That makes him the most dominant and consistent driver at this oval for the past seven years.

Kyle Busch -
Busch's career resume at PIR is a mixed bag, but it's been turning much more positive in recent seasons. He has three pole positions, one win and 18 Top 10s in 26 races at the desert oval. His most recent outings have yielded six-straight finishes inside the Top-7 at ISM Raceway. That illustrates his recent excellence at this flat short track. Considering that Busch comes to PIR third in the Chase standings this weekend, he'll be looking to make a statement performance and set the tone for the one-race take-all championship at Homestead. Busch's upside is pretty tremendous and balanced with a career 69-percent Top-10 rate. He led 128 laps at PIR during this spring's Ticket Guardian 500, before finishing second. Busch could have won that day, and you can bet he'll remember that this Sunday afternoon.

Chase Elliott -
The impressive young driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet had a setback in his pursuit of the championship. Elliott still has one last shot to toss the Hail Mary pass for the victory this weekend and advance to the final round of the Chase. His five prior Cup starts at Phoenix have netted a pair of Top-3, four Top-10 finishes, and a good performance this past March. He qualified third on the grid and raced among the Top 5 that afternoon in the Arizona desert, and would finish an impressive third. Elliott's performance in this event one year ago was nearly a victory. He led 34 laps and nearly ran down race winner Matt Kenseth, but come up short on laps. The Hendrick Motorsports driver would finish runner-up that day. All the performance indicators are in place, and Elliott has the major motivation to win.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team is looking to advance to Homestead and defend their Cup championship of one year ago. A victory at ISM Raceway would give him the automatic berth and set him up to win the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Truex has only nine Top-10 finishes in his 25-career starts at ISM Raceway as this is not one of his more successful ovals. That works out to a lowly 16.5 average finish. Recent outings at the Arizona short track have been much better for this veteran driver, and much of the reason for our optimism this weekend. Truex finished third in this event one year ago to earn his career-best Phoenix finish. Not to be outdone, he returned to the oval this spring and won the pole en route to finishing a strong fifth-place. Truex and the Furniture Row Racing team is racing headlong towards the championship, and they'll race with a purpose this weekend in the Arizona desert.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Joey Logano - The Penske Racing driver has been getting better as the season has worn on. He's now become a legitimate threat to win the championship. Logano has one pole position, 296 laps led and nine Top-10 finishes in 19 starts at ISM Raceway. He won this event two years ago, and has really solidified his career stats at this facility. Logano rides a six-race Top-10 streak into this weekend's action and has been one of the hottest drivers of the Chase. This is a good time for the No. 22 Ford team to visit the Arizona short track. Considering that Logano won on our last flat oval (Martinsville) that's a great indicator heading into Sunday's Can-Am 500.

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star heads to Phoenix looking to salvage what's left of the season and tune up for next year. This week he visits one of his better ovals in ISM Raceway. Hamlin has great stats at this oval that are worth considering. He has two pole positions, one victory and 15 Top-10 finishes in his Phoenix resume. That works out to a strong 58-percent Top-10 rate. With an impressive average finish of 11.5 at this D-shaped oval, it's clear that the JGR driver likes racing at this tough short track. Hamlin's been strong on the bullring circuit of late with a pair of runner-up finishes recently at Dover and Martinsville. His near brush with victory at Martinsville a couple weeks ago is still fresh in our memory.

Kurt Busch -
No matter what happens Sunday afternoon, Busch has had an incredible season. He's gone deep into the Chase, and he claimed a surprise win at Bristol a few weeks ago. PIR should present him with another opportunity to post a Top 10 before the season ends. Busch has solid career numbers at this small oval. 31-career starts have yielded 18 Top-10 finishes, 757 laps led and one victory. He's had his fair share of success at the Arizona flat track. In his start at ISM Raceway earlier this season, Busch peddled hard to nab a 10th-place finish in the Ticket Guardian 500. That lifted his career Top-10 average at Phoenix to 58-percent, and lowered his career average finish there to 13.6. We expect the No. 41 Ford team to race up front this Sunday afternoon.

Brad Keselowski -
The No. 2 Penske Racing Ford team comes to Phoenix looking to sharpen their axe and prepare for the 2019 season. While a victory is not likely, a good performance should be very much in the cards. Keselowski has Top-10 finishes eight of 18 starts at the Arizona short track. While that's a pedestrian 44-percent, the veteran driver has a good amount of momentum coming into Sunday's Can-Am 500. Two of his last three starts have netted Top-10 finishes (Kansas and Martinsville), and he's led laps in his last 10-straight starts. Keselowski may be out of the Chase for the Cup, but he should race among the championship contending teams this weekend.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Phoenix who can provide a solid finish

Ryan Blaney - Coming off the runner-up finish and great performance at Texas, Blaney is looking to finish the season strong. Phoenix offers another opportunity for the No. 12 Penske Racing team to challenge the Top 10. Blaney has five-career starts at ISM Raceway with two Top-10 finishes to his credit. That bodes well going into the Can-Am 500. The young driver has a pair of Top 10s in his last three starts entering the weekend, so it appears that Blaney is finishing the 2018 season strong. The Phoenix oval presents some challenges for this driver and team since he's not had the best short track numbers through his brief career. That's the reason for the sleepers list ranking this week, but Blaney still brings a lot of fantasy racing appeal to the table.

Erik Jones -
After a strong fourth-place finish at Texas, Jones is pointed back in the right direction coming to Phoenix. The news gets better for the No. 20 Toyota team. Jones has been spot on in all of his outings at the Desert Jewel. Three of his four-career starts at the track have netted Top-10 finishes. His average finish sits at a very robust 10.0. In March, Jones piloted his JGR Toyota Camry to a ninth-place finish in the Ticket Guardian 500. This young driver is surging right now, and Jones is making a very timely visit to ISM Raceway. We expect him to hammer out another Top-10 finish in Sunday's race on the newly-configured Phoenix short track.

Aric Almirola -
Almirola is a man on a mission this weekend. The No. 10 SHR team went for broke to win at Texas this past week and ran into several obstacles along the way. While a Phoenix win would be a long short for Almirola, we should see another great effort in an attempt to extend his playoff run to Homestead. The veteran driver of the No. 10 Ford has had limited success at ISM Raceway over his career, but he started to turn the corner here last season. Finishes of 17th-, ninth- and seventh-place in his last three starts at Phoenix are a great trend. The last of those was a career-best Phoenix finish of seventh that came in March of this year. We believe he can be at least that good Sunday in the Can-Am 500.

Ryan Newman -
Newman has been pretty consistent throughout this season's Chase. His short track performances have been among the best of those efforts. In addition, he's coming off an eighth-place finish in our last short track race at Martinsville Speedway a couple weeks ago. The Richard Childress Racing driver boasts four-career poles and two-career victories at ISM Raceway. In 32-career starts Newman has nabbed 12 Top-10 finishes. One of those was his surprising and improbable victory here last year. Newman started 13th on the grid here in March of this year and piloted the No. 31 Chevrolet to a respectable 11th-place finish. That's a good mark to shoot for this weekend for the veteran RCR driver.

Alex Bowman -
Bowman could be the playoff outsider who sneaks into the Top 10 this weekend at ISM Raceway. He's coming off ninth-, 17th-, and 14th-place finishes the last three weeks, so the recent performance has been decent. Bowman has two-career starts at this oval with the No. 88 Chevrolet team, and they were sixth- and 13th-place finishes. In this event one year ago he won the pole, led 194 laps and finished sixth. While we're not expecting a repeat of that performance this weekend, he should qualify well and post a finish similar to March's 13th-place effort in the Ticket Guardian 500. Bowman presents a lot of fantasy racing upside in this next-to-last race of the season.

Daniel Suarez -
The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster nabbed his first-career Top-10 finish at the Desert Jewel in March of last year, so you know this place is special to the young driver. Suarez recently finished ninth on a similar flat track of Martinsville just a couple weeks ago, so these small tracks play well to the driver of the No. 19 Toyota. Suarez now has three-career starts at ISM Raceway with finishes of seventh-, 18th- and eighth-place. That's a stellar 11.0 average finish, but obviously over a small sample size. Still, we believe the trend line is a good indication of Suarez's comfort level with this small oval. If you're looking for deep lineup help in weekly lineup leagues, Suarez is your man for this important race.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jimmie Johnson - After a controversy with NASCAR and subpar 15th-place finish at Texas this past weekend, Jonson comes to Phoenix with a dubious winless season hanging over his head. He's facing the prospect of his first winless season in his 17-season career. There's a good chance we could see that come to pass after Phoenix and Homestead. The Hendrick Motorsports star has enjoyed a lot of success at ISM Raceway over the years. Johnson is a four-time winner at PIR, and he has a staggering 20 Top-10 finishes in 30-career starts (67-percent). The Hendrick Motorsports star has had his issues of late, thus the slow down ranking this week. There are too many question marks to deploy Johnson in your fantasy lineups this week.

Kyle Larson -
All the indicators seem to point to a great finish this weekend at Phoenix, but we have to step outside of that box for a moment. The Chase schedule of tracks have been an inconsistent affair for the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team. ISM Raceway has been a real challenge for Larson over his five-season career. Outside of a couple brilliant runs here in 2016 and 2017, the body of work has been all over the map. Three Top-10 finishes in nine starts yield a lowly 33-percent Top-10 rate. The last two starts for the CGR star have yielded 66 laps led, but finishes of 40th- and 18th-place. Larson is simply too big a wild card at Phoenix to risk a fantasy racing start. He's a much safer play the following week at Homestead.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer has been his own worst enemy at times this season. We saw that at Texas last week when he ran into trouble on lap 1, and exaggerated that problem on pit road with a pit penalty. The driver of the No. 14 Ford faces a must-win scenario this week at Phoenix in order to advance to Homestead for the championship. We believe that pressure is probably more of a bad indicator than a good one. Although Bowyer finished sixth here in March, Phoenix has been a problematic oval most of his career. With only seven Top 10s in 26 starts (27-percent) ISM Raceway has been a real challenge for the SHR veteran driver. A finish in the middle or upper teens this weekend could be about the best Bowyer could muster, and the low-end potential is far worse.

Chris Buescher -
The JTG Daugherty Racing driver has been quite useful this season in deep weekly lineup leagues. His 16th-place finish recently at Kansas, and 13th-place finish at Martinsville have proven his utility. However, Buescher is coming to a track that has challenged him tremendously in his Monster Energy Cup Series career. He has five-career starts at ISM Raceway, and those have netted 30th-, 32nd-, 27th-, 37th- and 29th-place finishes. Recent races have been very encouraging for this driver and team, however, Phoenix will prove to be a very daunting task. Keep Buescher benched for this one, and consider fantasy racing deployment at Homestead the following week.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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