Ticket Guardian 500 Preview: The House That Harvick Built

Ticket Guardian 500 Preview: The House That Harvick Built

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

After consecutive weeks of racing on cookie cutter ovals, we move to a track of a completely different configuration.  This oval is anything but a "cookie cutter."  This week NASCAR's top racing series stops at one of the more unique tracks on the circuit, ISM Raceway.  The track at Avondale, Arizona 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.  This oval is completely different than Daytona, Atlanta 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, Kevin Harvick has turned this venue into his "house" and he's completely dominated the field the last several years at this oval.  Coming off a couple solid performances, this weekend's race would seem to set up very well for the Stewart Haas Racing star.  Harvick is still seeking his first victory of the season, so this will be a huge opportunity to get into the win column for the No. 4 Ford team.      

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 ISM Raceway.  This style of racing is a big departure from the intermediate ovals and Daytona that we've spent the first three weeks of

After consecutive weeks of racing on cookie cutter ovals, we move to a track of a completely different configuration.  This oval is anything but a "cookie cutter."  This week NASCAR's top racing series stops at one of the more unique tracks on the circuit, ISM Raceway.  The track at Avondale, Arizona 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.  This oval is completely different than Daytona, Atlanta 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, Kevin Harvick has turned this venue into his "house" and he's completely dominated the field the last several years at this oval.  Coming off a couple solid performances, this weekend's race would seem to set up very well for the Stewart Haas Racing star.  Harvick is still seeking his first victory of the season, so this will be a huge opportunity to get into the win column for the No. 4 Ford team.      

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 ISM Raceway.  This style of racing is a big departure from the intermediate ovals and Daytona 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 ISM 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 Monster Energy Cup Series schedule.  The loop stats in the table below cover the last 14 years or 28 races at ISM Raceway.

DRIVER   AVG
 FINISH
QUALITY 
PASSES
# Fastest 
Laps
LEAD
 LAPS
LAPS in 
TOP 15
DRIVER 
RATING
Kevin Harvick8.16448601,5957,216111
Chase Elliott9.51641671561,817108.7
Jimmie Johnson10.67187129057,008106.6
Kyle Busch11.47854579447,086102.2
Denny Hamlin11.66043396716,07096.7
Kurt Busch14.26324175806,09895.4
Brad Keselowski13.54713261634,25494.3
Erik Jones11.414136111,28893.1
Kyle Larson14.220395691,98392.1
Joey Logano15.53821622964,09288.6
Martin Truex Jr.16.45562231125,31986.8
Ryan Newman16.17791591285,64486.2
Ryan Blaney181169141,34483.4
William Byron10.55581542083.2
Clint Bowyer19499124223,98976.6
Aric Almirola15.62532501,83274.6
Austin Dillon20.2146901,34572.4
Daniel Suarez17.3590038267.8
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.20.313521070967
Paul Menard222532401,82865.8

With Kevin Harvick's victory in this event one year ago, the Stewart Haas Racing star returned to victory lane for the first time in Phoenix since 2016.  He also took Ford back to victory lane at ISM Raceway for just the second time in the last 11 races at the desert oval.  All three manufacturers have made it to victory lane at Phoenix in the last two years, so there is still a bit of parity here.  If Ford hopes to stay in victory lane here, their hopes will primarily ride with Harvick.  He's a nine-time winner at the desert short track, and he's riding a good streak entering the weekend.  The Stewart Haas Racing star's confidence level has to be very high, even though he hasn't won yet this season.  

In all this talk about Ford let's not forget about Toyota.  Kyle Busch won at the Phoenix oval last November.  When he took his Toyota Camry to victory lane at PIR it was the second win for that manufacturer at Phoenix in the last three events.  Busch is now a two-time winner at ISM Raceway, and his stats have been just as impressive as Harvick's at the oval the last three years.  As for Chevrolet, they haven't gotten off to the best start this season, but short track racing should be a bit of an equalizer this weekend.  Easily the fastest Chevy drivers of this young season have been Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch.  Elliott owns a pair of Top-3 finishes in his last three starts at the Phoenix oval.  Larson also finished third here last November.  So we wouldn't rule out the possibility of a Chevy insurrection at ISM Raceway this weekend.  With this being the first "short track" race of the season, we're sure to be in for a number of surprises in the Ticket Guardian 500.  We'll highlight the teams mentioned above, and some others who will be vying for the win at ISM Raceway.  

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick ISM Raceway is one of Harvick's top statistical ovals.  He's a nine-time winner at the facility, including this event one season ago.  He leads all drivers in the series in laps led at this oval during the last 14 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 good start this season with a pair of Top-5 finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas.  We'll see if that hot streak continues in Phoenix.  The Stewart Haas Racing star has finished outside the Top-5 at this facility only once in the last 11 starts.  The smart money is on Harvick in the Ticket Guardian 500.    

Kyle Busch The Joe Gibbs Racing star is looking to build on the momentum he has built in the first three races of the season.  That has been a runner-up finish at Daytona, sixth-place at Atlanta, and third-place this past week at Las Vegas.  While Busch has only two-career victories at this oval, it by no means diminishes his value here.  In fact, he's come on very strong in recent outings at ISM Raceway.  In this event one year ago, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota finished runner-up to Kevin Harvick.  Busch would return in the fall during the Chase and get the Phoenix victory that eluded him earlier last season.  He now rides a dazzling seven-race Top-10 streak at this oval with well over 400 laps led during that span.  Make no mistake about it, Busch is Harvick's main competition this weekend.

Brad Keselowski The veteran driver has a victory and runner-up finish in the last two events coming into Arizona this week.  The Penske Racing star is on fire as we return to the oval just outside Phoenix.  Keselowski will be making his 20th-career start at this flat Arizona oval this weekend.  While his career numbers are lacking a win, Keselowski's recent stats at this oval have been gradually improving.  That leads us to be very optimistic that the driver of the No. 2 Ford will be dialed-in for the Ticket Guardian 500.  Two of his last four trips to ISM Raceway have yielded Top-5 finishes.  That has elevated Keselowski's career Top-10 rate at this one-mile oval to 47-percent.  Keselowski finished a career-best runner-up to Kyle Busch here last November.  The notes from that race should be very fresh in crew chief Paul Wolfe's notebook.    

Kyle Larson The short track "boost" will be well received by the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team.  To this point in the season, they've treaded water with the faster Fords, but this race will give Larson a real shot at the checkered flag.  Three of his last five visits to ISM Raceway have resulted in Top-3 finishes, including last November's Can-Am 500.  Larson couldn't track down Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, but he'd still collect a strong third-place finish in Phoenix.  His career numbers at this facility have been gradually improving, and he's even led 66 laps at ISM Raceway in his last three starts.  If there's an upset favorite for this weekend's race, it's likely Larson and the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team.

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

Chase Elliott It's been a tough start to the season for Elliott, but it turned much more positive with his Top-10 finish at Las Vegas this past week.  The young driver 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.  In this event one year ago, Elliott started up front and finished there with his brilliant third-place finish in that installment of the Ticket Guardian 500.  He now has over 150 laps led at this facility and a pair of Top-3 finishes in his last three ISM Raceway starts.  His 67-percent Top-10 rate at this small oval speaks volumes of Elliott's ability at this race track.  

Denny HamlinHamlin has been one of the best short track drivers in the series the last several seasons.  The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has one victory at Phoenix, which came in 2012.  Hamlin cracks the Top 5 in 41-percent of his starts at ISM.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led over 650 laps for his career at Phoenix, and he's usually no worse than a Top-10 finisher.  Hamlin has had a great start to the season with the Daytona 500 victory and two Top-10 finishes in the first three races of 2019.  He comes to ISM Raceway looking to continue building on that momentum as we head into the short track portion of the spring schedule.  He should crack the Top 10 in Sunday's Ticket Guardian 500.

Martin Truex Jr. Truex hasn't exactly started the season in race-winning form.  That's had more to do with Ford's dominance and less to do with the No. 19 Toyota team.  He's still had the speed to nab two Top-10 finishes in the last two weeks.  ISM Raceway hasn't been an oval of dominance for Truex, thus the solid plays list placement this week.  He has nine-career Top-10 finishes at this facility, but most have come in recent seasons.  Truex's start at the one-mile Arizona oval in this event one year ago netted a pole position and surprising Top-5 finish.  This is much of the reason for our optimism for the Joe Gibbs Racing star this weekend.  Make no mistake about it, Truex is not the driver to beat this weekend, but he'll easily be a face inside the Top-10 and maybe the Top-5.  

Aric Almirola This veteran driver has found a new lease on his NASCAR career with the move to the Stewart Haas Racing No. 10 team.  Almirola raced deep into the Chase last season, and has started this season with a pair of Top-10 finishes in the first three events.  Now he'll ride that momentum into ISM Raceway this weekend.  Almirola has just four-career Top-10 finishes at this small oval, but the really good news is that three of those have come in the last three events at the desert short track.  He finished fourth here last November, and that's his career-best mark at ISM Raceway.  We're very optimistic that this good trend line will continue with his new team at SHR.  A Top-10 finish in Sunday's Ticket Guardian 500 is nearly a guarantee.  

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

Joey Logano The driver of the No. 22 Ford has had a tougher go of things at Phoenix in more recent seasons as opposed to earlier in his career.  Thus we have moved him to the sleepers list this week, so as not to overvalue him.  Logano has nine Top-10 finishes in 20 starts at the Desert Jewel, and that works out to a pedestrian 45-percent rate.  He's led close to 300 laps at Phoenix, however, he's failed to lead a single lap in his last three starts.  The last two seasons have been particularly difficult for Logano at ISM Raceway with only one Top-15 finish in the last four attempts.  Riding the wave of his big win at Las Vegas this past week may do much to mitigate the situation, but we still have to take a very measured approach to the No. 22 team this week.

Kurt Busch Busch has been one of the more consistent finishers in the Monster Energy Cup Series at the Phoenix oval over the years.  The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran is a one-time winner at ISM, and he cracks the Top 10 at a strong 56-percent rate.  That percentage has actually been elevated the past few seasons as Busch has been visiting the Top 10 here better than his career rate.  He finished 10th in this event one year ago, and led 52 laps at Phoenix in the fall, but crashed out of that latter race.  Busch is looking to build on his good start to the 2019 season and he's visiting one of his better ovals this weekend.  Busch is a rock-solid fantasy start at the one-mile Arizona oval this week.

Erik Jones The Joe Gibbs Racing rising star has shown good speed to start the season.  He's netted a pair of Top 10s and a 13th-place finish this past week at Las Vegas.  Jones didn't get the finish he deserved at Vegas this past week, but he'll look to make up for it at ISM Raceway.  The young driver has five-career starts at the flat oval outside Phoenix, and he's only gotten better with each start.  Jones has accumulated three Top-10 and five Top-20 finishes in those efforts.  His start in this event one year ago saw the No. 20 Toyota start and finish ninth in the Ticket Guardian 500.  With now five starts at this facility under his belt, Jones' 11.4 average finish at ISM really stands out.          

Ryan Blaney Another Penske Racing driver to take a measured approach with this week is Blaney.  ISM 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 two Top 10s in six starts at this facility.  That works out to a somewhat higher than we like 18.0 average finish.  The one bonus is that he had great speed in his last Phoenix outing.  Blaney qualified fourth on the grid and led 3 laps before misfortune would take him out on lap 237 with radiator problems.  He was a Top-10 fixture most of the day up until that point.  We believe Blaney will get the finish he deserved last fall in this Sunday's Ticket Guardian 500.      

Ryan Newman Rocket Man won this race two years ago in a surprise upset.  While we don't expect to see him back in victory lane this weekend, it's still a statement about his excellence at this facility.  Newman has two-career victories and 12 Top-10 finishes in 33 starts at ISM Raceway.  He also has countless Top-15 finishes, helping to hold his career average to a respectable 16.8.  Those stats place Newman steadily within the second-tier of drivers at this facility.  The move to Roush Fenway Racing should play no factor in his performance this weekend.  Newman collected a pair of 11th-place finishes at Phoenix last season for his old boss, Richard Childress.  The No. 6 Ford team's last action at ISM yielded an impressive seventh-place finish last November with former driver, Matt Kenseth.

William Byron The "roll of the dice" driver this week is definitely Byron.  He has just two career Cup starts at ISM Raceway, but they were eye-catching 12th- and ninth-place finishes last season.  The two were among his better efforts in a tough 2018 campaign.  The No. 24 team is coming off a steady performance at Las Vegas this past weekend.  Byron led 21 laps and earned a 16th-place finish in the Pennzoil 400.  To this point, that has been this driver and team's best performance of the young season.  With things looking a bit better than in February for this driver and team, there has to be some optimism heading to the Arizona desert this week.  Byron's experience there has been rather good to this point.

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Jimmie Johnson The Hendrick Motorsports star has incredible stats at the Phoenix oval.  Johnson is a four-time winner at ISM and that is second only to Kevin Harvick among the Monster Energy Cup Series.  However, his stats at this facility have been trailing off in recent visits.  Johnson has only two Top 10s in his last seven visits to ISM Raceway.  His two starts at this oval last season were a pair of Top-15 finishes.  It's no secret that the No. 48 team has labored mightily to start this season.  The No. 48 team has 24th- and 19th-place finishes the last two weeks at Atlanta and Las Vegas, and that is a troubling sign.  New crew chief, Kevin Meedering, hasn't exactly given Johnson the boost we've expected just yet.  

Paul Menard Menard's recent history at this Arizona oval has been one of tough breaks.  The Wood Brothers Racing driver has just one Top-10 finish in his last six attempts at ISM vs. two DNF's.  One of those DNF's came in this event one year ago, the other in 2016.  His average finish across the recent six-race span is a bloated 24.8.  That's not much higher than his career average of 22.0 in 24-career starts.  This facility has simply never been one of Menard's better tracks.  With just three Top 10s in those starts, his career rate checks in at a lowly 13-percent.  It's best to steer clear of any fantasy racing expectations for Menard this weekend.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.While Stenhouse has been a pleasant surprise through the first three races, we have to push back from him this weekend.  The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has had many struggles over the years at ISM Raceway.  The small oval outside Phoenix has only yielded two Top 10s to Stenhouse in 12-career starts (17-percent) and his average finish checks in around an elevated 20.3.  He ran into trouble on the newly-configured oval last season and struggled to 23rd- and 33rd-place finishes at ISM Raceway last year.  It's going to take some tremendous effort and luck for Stenhouse to break this trend Sunday in the Ticket Guardian 500.  

Clint Bowyer Bowyer's luck at this facility has been very poor in recent races.  He looked great here at one point last November, but would crash out of the Can-Am 500.  The driver of the No. 14 Ford has just one Top-10 finish in his last six starts in the Arizona desert.  The average finish checks in at a subpar 20.3 for the Stewart Haas Racing veteran.  When we contrast that with his career-long numbers at Phoenix the picture becomes very clear.  In 27 starts Bowyer has just seven Top 10s at this flat oval.  That works out to a lower-than-average 26-percent.  The odds would appear to be squarely stacked against this driver and team this weekend.  

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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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