Ruoff Mortgage 500k Preview: The Desert Jewel

Ruoff Mortgage 500k Preview: The Desert Jewel

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We stay out west this weekend and head from Nevada to Arizona to complete the West Coast swing. This week NASCAR's top racing series stops at one of the more unique tracks on the circuit, Phoenix Raceway. The track at Avondale, Ariz., is an irregular "D-shaped" oval with very low, progressive banking in the corners of eight to 11 degrees. The straights are nearly flat at a lowly three degrees, and very fast as they carry off into the sweeping corners. 

This oval is vastly different than Daytona, Fontana and Las Vegas. Phoenix boasts the high speeds that borders on intermediate ovals with the close confines of short track racing as well. As we have witnessed in the last several years, it's often the driver who brings the fastest car to the Arizona desert that walks away with the trophy. This race is typically marked by dominant performances, and very rarely by late momentum swings that catapult drivers into victory lane. The driver who has led the most laps at this oval has won five of the last seven Phoenix races. This is a trend that will likely continue this Sunday.

Since we are making our first stop of the season in the Arizona desert this week, we can only really look back on past statistics for Phoenix Raceway. This style of racing is a big departure from the standard ovals that we've spent the first three weeks of the season competing on.  At this point we're tracking trends, but

We stay out west this weekend and head from Nevada to Arizona to complete the West Coast swing. This week NASCAR's top racing series stops at one of the more unique tracks on the circuit, Phoenix Raceway. The track at Avondale, Ariz., is an irregular "D-shaped" oval with very low, progressive banking in the corners of eight to 11 degrees. The straights are nearly flat at a lowly three degrees, and very fast as they carry off into the sweeping corners. 

This oval is vastly different than Daytona, Fontana and Las Vegas. Phoenix boasts the high speeds that borders on intermediate ovals with the close confines of short track racing as well. As we have witnessed in the last several years, it's often the driver who brings the fastest car to the Arizona desert that walks away with the trophy. This race is typically marked by dominant performances, and very rarely by late momentum swings that catapult drivers into victory lane. The driver who has led the most laps at this oval has won five of the last seven Phoenix races. This is a trend that will likely continue this Sunday.

Since we are making our first stop of the season in the Arizona desert this week, we can only really look back on past statistics for Phoenix Raceway. This style of racing is a big departure from the standard ovals that we've spent the first three weeks of the season competing on.  At this point we're tracking trends, but the change of racing style this week demands that we visit the historical numbers with some emphasis. The recent loop statistics at Phoenix Raceway will be the most important data we will examine this week. The historical trends at the Phoenix oval are as important as anywhere in the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. The loop stats in the table below cover the last 17 years or 34 races at Phoenix Raceway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kevin Harvick7.79129801,6639,028110.3
Chase Elliott10.73783614963,228108.9
Kyle Busch10.81,0476231,1908,722103.8
Denny Hamlin10.57615678537,69499.7
Kyle Larson10.94131691793,31496.1
Brad Keselowski12.56824322835,73295.6
Joey Logano13.36083017175,89094.7
Kurt Busch13.68554215897,56793.6
Ryan Blaney14.3310841772,94892.6
Martin Truex Jr.15.07914162596,96690.9
Greg Biffle15.24542883893,67786.1
William Byron13.331827151,77783.8
Erik Jones16.826343112,10779.7
Aric Almirola14.252248333,29078.3
Christopher Bell14.817119060178.1
AJ Allmendinger17.927143172,08972.8
Cole Custer20.319226057071.6
Tyler Reddick25.011713451969.1
Austin Dillon20.82072901,72068.3
Alex Bowman23.8205701941,40968.0

This is the first race at the Phoenix oval since last November when NASCAR's top division rolled into the Arizona desert to crown last season's champion. Kyle Larson would put on a dominant performance and lead 107 of the 312 laps that November afternoon. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet would hold the other three championship contenders at bay as they would finish second- through fifth-place that afternoon, and Larson would hoist his first Cup Series championship trophy over his head. Considering that we're just four, short months removed from that race, we have to look very closely at what happened in the Season Finale 500. That race and its data will be very fresh and relevant to this week's Ruoff Mortgage 500k. Larson's win gave Chevrolet their second victory in the last three events at Phoenix and potentially signaled a changing of the guard.

If Toyota hopes to climb back into top status at Phoenix Raceway, their hopes will primarily ride with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. The duo has five-combined Phoenix victories and have been the men to beat prior to 2020 at the Desert Jewel. If Ford hopes to retake the reins of Phoenix, their big hitters will be Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano. Harvick is a nine-time winner at Phoenix Raceway, and as recently as 2018. He's dominated no other oval on the circuit as completely as Phoenix Raceway. Ford's next-best suitor Logano, is a two-time winner at Phoenix, including this event two years ago.  

As for Chevrolet, if they hope to keep control of this track, their hopes will primarily rest with Elliott and Larson. They are the last two winners for the bowtie brand at Phoenix Raceway. However, we can't rule out a longer shot Chevy driver making some waves as well. We'll have to keep a close eye on Alex Bowman and William Byron as they too could stir up some trouble for the other manufacturers.  We'll highlight the teams mentioned above, and some others who will be vying for the win at Phoenix Raceway. 

The Contenders – Those in the hunt for the win

Kyle Larson – Coming off the runner-up Las Vegas finish, Larson and the No. 5 Chevrolet team have a lot of momentum rolling into the Arizona desert this week. The veteran driver carries a string of six Top-7 finishes at this oval coming into this weekend's Ruoff Mortgage 500k. Larson's last performance at this track netted 107 laps led and championship-clinching victory in the Championship Finale 500 last November. That effort has lifted Larson's career Top-10 rate at Phoenix to a strong 60-percent. He also cracks the Top 5 at this oval at an impressive 40-percent rate. It's really surprising that he's only grabbed one-career victory at this race track. However, that could easily change by Sunday evening. Larson and his race team are on a roll right now. 

Chase Elliott – It's been a choppy start to the season for the Hendrick Motorsports star. Elliott started last season slow as well, but quickly warmed up when the series visited Phoenix. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet should get a boost in value this week as we're racing on a smaller oval for the first time this season. We're just four months removed from Elliott's Top-5 finish at Phoenix Raceway last November. He led 94 laps that afternoon and stormed to the strong Top-5 finish. The notes from that race will come in handy for this driver and team this weekend. Elliott has always liked this small oval (67-percent Top-10 rate) and he's led a combined 496 laps in his Cup Series career at the Arizona track. 

Kyle Busch – The Joe Gibbs Racing star is looking to build on the momentum of his Top-5 finish at Las Vegas last Sunday. The No. 18 Toyota team isn't completely focused yet, but they're quickly moving in that direction. Busch is a three-time winner at Phoenix, and two of those victories have come since 2018 at the Phoenix oval. In fact, he's been zeroed-in at this track for quite some time. Busch has finished inside the Top 3 in five of his last eight starts at the Desert Jewel. Recent efforts have boosted his Top-10 rate at the Arizona short track to a lofty 70-percent. Busch has yet to look like a world-beater in his first three starts of the season, but this weekend that could very easily change.

Joey Logano – The driver of the No. 22 Ford is a two-time Phoenix winner, including this event two years ago. It marks a surge in performance for Logano at this facility in recent visits. The Penske Racing star has led a combined 421 laps in his last five starts at Phoenix Raceway. He's also cracked the Top 10 in five of his last six starts at the Arizona short track heading into Sunday's action. Logano's start in this event one year ago netted 143 laps led and an impressive runner-up finish in the Instacart 500. With practice and qualifying returning to Phoenix this weekend, Logano is a great candidate to challenge for the win in the Ruoff Mortgage 500k. 

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Kevin Harvick – Phoenix Raceway is one of Harvick's top statistical ovals. He's a nine-time winner at the facility, including this event in 2018. He leads all drivers in the series in laps led at this oval during the last 17 seasons, so clearly Harvick possesses a gift at this one-mile short track. The veteran driver's No. 4 team at Stewart Haas Racing has gotten off to a reasonable start this season and with finishes of seventh- and 12th-place the last two weeks he seems to be gradually acclimating to the new car. We'll see if Harvick can turn it up a notch this Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. The Stewart Haas Racing star carries a staggering 17-race Phoenix Top-10 streak into this weekend's action. If there is any track in the schedule to jump start Harvick's momentum, it's Phoenix.     

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex hasn't exactly started the season in race-winning form. However, he slugged it out to an impressive eighth-place finish at Las Vegas this past week. Phoenix Raceway hasn't been an oval of dominance for Truex, thus the solid plays tag this week. He won this event one year ago, and he finished runner-up at Phoenix Raceway last Fall. Those performances built on some recent success for the driver of the No. 19 Toyota at this track. Still, those efforts came in the prior generation race car, so it's a bit of a reset this weekend. With a career Top-10 rate hovering around 44-percent and average finish of 15.0, Phoenix has not been a bad facility for Truex. You can see that the Joe Gibbs Racing teams are quickly adapting to the Next-Gen car and are getting better with each week. 

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin has been one of the best short track drivers in the series the last several seasons. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has two-career Phoenix victories to his credit. The last came in his start here in the Fall of 2019. Hamlin cracks the Top 5 in 49-percent of his starts at Phoenix Raceway. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led over 850 laps for his career at Phoenix, and he's usually no worse than a Top-10 finisher. Hamlin's last three efforts at this Arizona oval have all netted Top-5 finishes. It's pretty clear that he simply loves racing at this short track. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has had a bumpy start to the 2022 season, but this is a race and an oval that can get him back in the Top-10 column this Sunday afternoon.

Ryan Blaney – Blaney led 10 laps and looked pretty fast early-on at Las Vegas last weekend, but a multi-car crash would prematurely end his day in the Pennzoil 400. He'll look to hit the reset button in the Arizona desert this week. Phoenix Raceway has been a bit of a mixed bag for the driver of the No. 12 Ford to this point in his career. Blaney has three Top 5's and seven Top 10's in 12 starts at this facility. That works out to a respectable 14.3 average finish. However, if we really focus on what he has accomplished recently at Phoenix Raceway, we see that Blaney is continually improving here. The young driver rides a three-race Phoenix Top-10 streak into this weekend's action, and he five Top 10's in his last six starts at the Arizona oval. 

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Phoenix & solid upside

Alex Bowman – Bowman gave no indication in his Daytona and Fontana outings that he was ready to win last week at Las Vegas. Regardless, with some good racing, a well-timed caution, and some great pit strategy, Bowman walked away the winner last week after a thrilling shootout with Kyle Larson. For his encore performance, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet will look to tame the Phoenix oval that has puzzled him for some time. Last season's finishes of 13th- and 18th-place at the Arizona short track are respectable, but not overly impressive. Bowman once had an eye-popping performance at Phoenix (2016), where he led 194 laps and finished sixth-place that afternoon. He certainly has the capability to impress here, and carrying some big momentum into Sunday thanks to his big Vegas win.   

Christopher Bell – The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster took some significant strides last season in his Phoenix performance. Bell racked up a pair of ninth-place finishes at the Arizona short track and instantly boosted his career Top-10 rate there to 50-percent. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota will now attempt to extend his Top-10 streak at this race track with his effort in Sunday's Ruoff Mortgage 500k. Bell had a tough start to the season in his first two events, but rebounded nicely at Las Vegas last Sunday. He won the pole position, led 32 laps and registered a respectable 10th-place finish in the Pennzoil 400. Bell will look to carry that momentum into Phoenix Raceway. Given his recent performance at this track, we're very optimistic about his chances this weekend.

William Byron – The Hendrick Motorsports youngster overcame two tough races to kick off the season with a brilliant fifth-place run at Las Vegas last Sunday. That should have him focused like a laser coming to Arizona this week. Phoenix Raceway gives Byron another opportunity to shine. The Arizona oval has yielded Top-10 finishes to the No. 24 Chevrolet team in three of their last four starts there and that has boosted Byron's Top-10 rate at this facility to a strong 50-percent. The 13.3 average finish across eight-career starts is also at a very good level. Byron and crew chief Rudy Fugle are currently making some waves, and we expect this driver and team to stay hot in the Ruoff Mortgage 500k.   

Aric Almirola – Almirola is the only driver in the Cup Series with three Top-10 finishes through the first three events of the season. The No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing team was woeful last year, but it appears they have a good handle on the new Next-Gen car. Almirola is fresh off a strong sixth-place finish at Las Vegas this past weekend. Now his attention turns to Phoenix and extending that Top-10 streak to four races. Almirola has always been a steady performer at this short track. The 32-percent Top-10 rate leaves a little to be desired, but the 14.2 average finish over 22 starts is not bad at all. A recent sampling shows finishes of eighth-, 13th-, 11th- and sixth-place in Almirola's last four starts at the Desert Jewel.   

Tyler Reddick – Since leaving Daytona, Reddick has been incredibly impressive the last two events. He led a career-best 90 laps at Fontana and swept the first two stages of that race, but race flow would saddle him with a subpar finish. Reddick raced among the Top 10 all afternoon at Las Vegas this past week and rode home to an impressive seventh-place finish in the Pennzoil 400. Now the young driver sets his sights on the Arizona short track. Reddick will be making his fifth-career Phoenix start this Sunday. Lessons learned in the recent past should start to add up this time around. The Richard Childress Racing driver has done nothing to distinguish himself at Phoenix Raceway to this point, but that could easily change in this 500k battle. Reddick and the No. 8 team are on fire and coming to Phoenix at a good time.

Austin Cindric – The rookie Penske Racing driver had a bit of a letdown at Las Vegas this past week, finishing 19th-place in the Pennzoil 400. Still, the No. 2 Ford team has had great speed out of the gate this year and should continue to look strong this Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. Cindric will be making his Cup Series debut at this track, but that should be of little concern. The young driver has vast experience at this short track in the Xfinity Series. Cindric is a two-time Phoenix winner in that division of NASCAR and sports a stellar 88-percent Top-10 rate at Phoenix Raceway. This track has really been to his liking before his promotion to the Cup Series. This driver and team have a lot of momentum right now, and Cindric has logged a ton of very successful laps at Phoenix in the recent past. 

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Brad Keselowski – The veteran driver opened the season with a strong Top-10 finish at Daytona, but it's been a bumpy ride since. 27th- and 24th-place finishes the last two weeks at Fontana and Las Vegas have dropped Keselowski to 11th-place in the driver standings. He'll look to regroup at Phoenix Raceway, but stands a tall task to overcome. Keselowski has never won at this facility, but he holds strong stats of consistency here. His 52-percent Top-10 rate is good and his 12.5 average finish at the Arizona short track is equally strong. However, we're going to have to look past Keselowski's history at this oval and understand he and this race team are still adjusting to the Next-Gen car. He's a bench candidate for the Ruoff Mortgage 500k.

Chase Briscoe – The young driver had a great kickoff to the season at Daytona, cracking the Top 5 in the Daytona 500, but things have gone a bit off the rails ever since. Briscoe led some laps at Fontana, but wound up with a subpar finish. Last week at Las Vegas he got rolled up in a crash and finished 35th in the Pennzoil 400. Briscoe will be on the comeback trail this week at the Arizona short track. The driver of the No. 14 Ford faces a stiff challenge. Phoenix Raceway has been a real puzzle to this point for the young driver. Briscoe has just two Cup Series starts at the track and they were forgettable 22nd- 35th-place finishes last season. He's a high-risk fantasy racing play Sunday in this 500k short track battle.     

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – The JTG-Daugherty Racing veteran has started this season reasonable enough. Stenhouse sits 16th in the driver standings after three events, but he's coming off a subpar 21st-place finish at Vegas. Things decidedly go up a notch this week with our first short track event in the schedule. Phoenix has been one of the demons that Stenhouse has battled from way back in his career. Through 18 starts he has just two Top-10 finishes (11-percent) and an average finish of 20.7 at the Desert Jewel. In his last five starts alone, Stenhouse has only cracked the Top 15 once for a 23.2 average finish. So his most recent work at the track is a bit worse than his career averages. We believe the driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet is a bench candidate for the Ruoff Mortgage 500k.    

Harrison Burton – Things have been pretty tough for the rookie driver. Burton crashed in the first two events of the season and peddled hard to earn a 16th-place finish at Las Vegas this past week. However, even that finish didn't come easy for the driver of the No. 21 Ford. Burton will now make his Cup Series debut at Phoenix Raceway. This unforgiving short track with heavy traffic and pace that sometimes resembles grinding, will be a tough test for the young driver. Burton enjoyed some Xfinity Series success at Phoenix the last couple seasons, but this is a completely different ballgame Sunday afternoon. The competition will be unrelenting and the new Next-Gen car will be a sharp learning curve for Burton.   

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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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