NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 best at Phoenix in last three seasons

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ISM Raceway will look different this weekend than it did in the spring. Major capital improvements were implemented between this year’s two races, including the relocation of the start/finish line. While that could make a difference in who wins this week, the track itself has not been changed since it was reconfigured and repaved in 2011.

That alteration was substantial with the addition of a run-off area on what was formerly the backstretch. This week, it will be a wide part of the road near where the checkered flag waves. If there is a late-race restart, it could be exciting as three-, four- or even five-wide racing breaks out and the driver with the most momentum off Turn 4 will triumph.

At its core, ISM is still Phoenix International Raceway, however – a track that rewards consistency and rhythm. Chose this week’s NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster from among the drivers who have excelled there in the past.

1. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 3.40) Playoff
Harvick’s last trip to Phoenix came after he was hit with a penalty for an illegal back window at Las Vegas in March. Undaunted, he dominated and won his seventh race there in his last 12 attempts and there is no reason to think this week will be any different.

2. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 3.60) Playoff
Busch has not won at Phoenix since his rookie season of 2005, but he has finished outside the top five only one time in his last six attempts. With a substantial points lead over the cutoff line and the promise that at least two playoff contenders will advance on points, he will likely settle for a solid performance without risking much for the win. 

3. Chase Elliott (three-year average: 6.80) Playoff
Last year Elliott held the lead late at Phoenix before he was overhauled by Matt Kenseth. He has learned a lot since then and will not be as easy to pass if he is in a position to win and advance to the championship four. In five starts on this track, he has never finished worse than 12th.

4. Erik Jones (three-year average: 7.00 in three starts) Non-Playoff
Since joining the Cup series last year, Jones has swept the top 10 at Phoenix. He finished fourth in this race last year and is coming off a fourth-place finish at Texas. He was also fourth the last time the series visited a 1-mile track at Dover. There are a lot of “fours” in his record this week, so fantasy players can expect him to finish near there again. 

5. Alex Bowman (three-year average: 9.50 in two starts) Non-Playoff
Bowman’s best Phoenix result before joining Hendrick Motorsports was a 30th earned in 2015. In fall 2016, he qualified Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s No. 88 on the pole and finished sixth. The feel of that car must have stuck with him because he qualified fourth there in the spring and finished 13th.

MORE: Rotoworld Fantasy Power Rankings

6. Daniel Suarez (three-year average: 11.00 in three starts) Non-Playoff
It is official that Suarez will give up his ride to Martin Truex Jr. in 2019 and that puts some pressure on the sophomore driver to perform this week. Luckily for him, this is a track that has been mostly kind since he joined Cup. Suarez’s three attempts at Phoenix netted two of his 21 career top 10s. His worst result of 18th came in this race last year. 

7. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 11.80) Non-Playoff
Hamlin may well be the best driver currently racing on minimally banked tracks. His three-year average at Phoenix is skewed by last year’s race when he was pinched in the wall by a determined Elliott. Without that, Hamlin would have a perfect record of top 10s and an average somewhere around sixth.  

8. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 13.40) Playoff
If one looks at the totality of Busch’s career with Stewart-Haas Racing at Phoenix, his numbers are much better than 13th. In nine attempts with that team, he has six top 10s. Unfortunately, two of the three times he missed that mark came last year and a pair of 20-something results have hurt his average. Busch has consistently earned top 10s on every track type this year and should easily record another. 

9. Aric Almirola (three-year average: 13.60) Playoff
While he has only three top 10s during his career at Phoenix, this has still been one of his better tracks with a career average finish of 18.1 in 15 starts. That places the flat 1-miler fourth on his list. Equally impressive, he has finished on the lead lap in 12 of the last 13 races there. Almirola needs a win this week, but his best finish to date has been a seventh this spring.

10. Martin Truex Jr. (three-year average: 14.60) Playoff
Before last fall, Truex had only one top five in 23 Phoenix attempts. He qualified fifth and finished third in that race. This spring, he started on the pole and finished fifth. He also has top fives in his last three New Hampshire races – which shows an affinity for the flat one-mile ovals. 

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: Never underestimate the power of determination. Harvick is in the news for all the wrong reasons this week, but one need only flash back to the spring Phoenix race for an image of him tapping the back window in defiance of all the haters that came out after his Vegas penalty. Harvick has only one previous pole on this track from spring 2015 but he has started on one of the first five rows six times in his last eight attempts.

Segment Winners: Finishing first in the opening stages at Phoenix has not been a particularly good omen so far. Last spring, Joey Logano won Stage 1 (after scoring the pole) and finished 31st. Elliott won Stage 2 and finished 12th. Last fall, Kyle Larson started third and won Stage 1 before finishing 40th. Stage 2 winner Hamlin finished 35th with crash damage. This spring, Kyle Busch defied those odds by finishing second after winning Stage 1, but his brother Kurt Busch finished only 10th after winning Stage 2. Pick a top five qualified driver, but don’t use that same racer as your overall winner pick.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

NASCAR America: Turning Point in Kyle Busch’s Auto Club win

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Twice this year Kyle Busch has been denied a chance at victory thanks to a pit road penalty (speeding in the Cup race at Las Vegas, tire violation in the Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway)

But a speeding penalty in Sunday’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway wasn’t enough to keep Busch from Victory Lane and 200 national NASCAR series wins.

The speeding penalty on Lap 123 and how Busch and his team responded to it is this week’s “Turning Point” on NASCAR America.

Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett discussed how Busch navigated the rest of the race after restarting 18th.

Letarte said the tone for the final stretch of the race was set by crew chief Adam Stevens’ counseling of Busch before the green flag and throughout the rest of the race.

Stevens told Busch, “We’ll get back up here in the top 10 in a handful of laps, get a couple of cautions and get right back in it.”

Said Jarrett: “(Stevens) knew how much he beat himself up after Las Vegas for the mistake he made there. But look at the moves (Busch) made here (on the restart). This doesn’t look like to me a driver who listened to any of that.”

As the final stage played out, Busch went from 10th to fifth in 23 laps, while the gap between him and race leader Brad Keselowski grew.

“Now he has a choice,” Letarte said. “You can try to short pit Brad Keselowski, I feel that would be futile. Brad knows who he’s racing, he’d short pit on top of you. Instead he runs long and he lets Brad come to pit road first.”

But Stevens was right. A caution would wave on Lap 165 for debris during the green flag stops and while Busch was leading.

After he pit under caution, Busch restarted second with 30 laps to and took the lead five laps later.

Watch the above video for the full segment.

Ryan: Which teams have mountains to climb after West Coast Swing?

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Kyle, Kyle, Kyle.

Kyle. Kyle.

Kyle.

As NASCAR leaves the land of Hollywood, hopefully it also will be shaking its “Being John Malkovich”-esque meta feedback loop that has been on repeat for two race weekends with a dizzying relentlessness.

Let’s wrap this up quickly!

Yes, Kyle Busch’s 200 national series victories are a laudable achievement worthy of his already Hall of Fame career.

No, it isn’t comparable to Richard Petty’s 200 Cup wins, which happened in another century (mostly with completely different tracks and circumstances) and stand on their own merits.

Maybe there are other things happening in NASCAR that are worthy of further examination with the completion of the fourth annual Nevada-Arizona-California hopscotch?

Running through a few of them:

–This is the first time in 19 years that Hendrick Motorsports has yet to record a top five through the first five races (and that 2000 team had one fewer car).

After a mediocre start to 2018 in the Camaro’s debut, the team somehow seems in the same straits with the model this season while adapting to the 2019 configuration of lower horsepower and higher downforce.

Because of the hurdles in running three consecutive races more than 2,000 miles from the industry’s Charlotte hub, it was expected that course-correcting any car deficiencies would be more difficult than it already is.

Never mind the expense of changing on the fly, it’s logistically impossible to make significant updates to cars while trying to ship them to the other side of the country amid a carefully coordinated and highly regimented plan of hauler swaps and highway gymnastics.

The March 31 race at Texas Motor Speedway will be the first 1.5-mile race in which teams have been able to digest everything learned in real-world conditions and apply them to their cars.

Alex Bowman finished 21st at Fontana and still is seeking his first top 10 in 2019 for Hendrick Motorsports (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images).

If Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson leave Texas without a top five, it won’t be the end of the world for Rick Hendrick’s squad. Last year, it took until August for Elliott to earn the first of three victories for the team, and Hendrick has an Optical Scanning Station in house (it didn’t a year ago), along with a better grasp on its personnel restructuring that occurred before the 2018 season.

All four drivers have run well at times this season, too, and Phoenix was a major rebound in qualifying.

But a collective one top 10 across 12 starts at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana is troubling and indicative that much work remains to be done for a storied organization that takes great pride in its 12 Cup championships.

–Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t miss the boat as much with its new Mustangs, but its lead driver also was chalking some of his recent success up to being a veteran.

After a fourth at Fontana, Kevin Harvick said his team made ‘a lot out of not very much.’ (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“I don’t think as a group we feel like our cars are where they need to be but that experience has led to decent finishes so we can change the things we want to when we get home,” Kevin Harvick said two days before his third top five and fourth consecutive top 10 this year. “Experience is always going to matter.”

So is money and sponsorship, which is why Stewart-Haas, Hendrick and other high-budget teams will be well positioned to retrofit their cars (or perhaps rebuild them entirely). Harvick estimated there could as many as a half-dozen combination of car styles that will need to be developed and require “an extreme amount of work” for the armies of engineers employed by teams.

“I think we are seeing some of the unintended consequences of this package,” he said. “It isn’t what everybody expected from the testing with the drafting and low drag and things you are prepared for. I feel like we have had top five, top three cars (at Atlanta, Vegas and ISM Raceway). They are just not quite winning cars.

“It is really just a survival game at this point trying to keep up with the schedule. We are learning at such a rapid pace right now that the changes to the car will be extreme by the time you get to Texas. … One of the things that caught a lot of people off guard are the differences you will have to have from race track to race track with the things you do to the car and how they work. The workload is going to be absolutely extreme on the race teams this year.”

–According to one crew chief whose team has figured out the 2019 package as well as anyone, body construction and rear ride heights are the keys to hitting the right combination of downforce and balance.

Paul Wolfe, whose No. 2 Ford posted a first, second and third with driver Brad Keselowski on the big ovals since Daytona, said his team still is finding the handle on this season’s setup, but those areas have been the most impact.

“There is a window there where you can change your rear ride height to change your drag, but that also changes the overall balance of your car,” Wolfe said after Saturday practice at Auto Club Speedway. “So then, your mechanical balance to go with the aero balance could be different. Some guys may have gone down the path of really trimming their cars out with their body build and then when you get (to Fontana), you just can’t put downforce back in it enough to be good at the tracks where you need to start to lift (off the throttle) because of tire fall off.

“There are a lot of options and lots of different things to do. It is about trying to understand not only being fast by yourself but how these cars seem to get extremely tight or they could get loose in the dirty air.”


During the throes of crisis after Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001, NASCAR executives angry about media coverage were counseled by a wise man (in a story recounted in this episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast) that “being pissed off is not a PR strategy” .

Hope isn’t a strategy, either, but that seems to be what NASCAR has clung to in hoping that group qualifying can remain viable in the era of drafting.

The most disconcerting part of last Friday’s self-proclaimed “mockery” at Auto Club Speedway is how eminently predictable the debacle was. If teams aren’t incentivized to be on the track first, then they justifiably will stay put until someone else does.

Of course, that was a terrible look at Fontana for NASCAR, and of course, the teams bear responsibility.

As do officials who blithely declared, “We’re in show business” when asked legitimate questions about why they were trying to implement procedures that have a dubious track record.

Group qualifying with a draft doesn’t work in the truck series, which reverts to a single-vehicle format. It also has failed in previous attempts at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway (and was overhauled after some controversial wrecks in 2015).

“It didn’t work in trucks, it didn’t work in Xfinity, and I don’t know why anybody thought it was going to work in the Cup Series,” analyst Jeff Burton said Monday on NASCAR America.

If the strategy for having it work this time was “let’s hope that drivers and teams will do the right thing and choose the path that will benefit the greater good of fan entertainment instead of stubbornly sticking to their selfish performance interests,” well … that’s hopeless.


OK, we give in: here’s ONE note on Kyle Busch (for Rowdy Nation and all its lovers/haters).

For the second consecutive week, Busch joked about the possibility of driving for a Formula One team as the last undiscovered country of his racing career (well, aside from if he ever gets around to the Indianapolis 500).

It seems an unlikely prospect because “nobody from F1 is calling.

“They’re going to have to spend a lot of money to buy me out of Joe Gibbs Racing, that’s for sure,” said Busch, who recently signed a multi-year extension that probably takes him through at least 2022 in the No. 18 Toyota. “I don’t know if it’s worth their investment. … I’d love to be able to give it a shot and kind of see. I don’t foresee the opportunity really blossoming.”

Ahh, but it once could have!

When the ill-fated USF1 team was planning a 2010 entry into Formula One (that unfortunately never happened), Busch was high on their radar screen – enough that USA TODAY reported that sporting director Peter Windsor had a cursory meeting with Busch’s business team.

“It’s definitely something I wouldn’t shoot down,” Busch said in 2009. “If I could win a championship (in NASCAR) in the next two or three years then I wouldn’t mind going doing (F1) for a few years and coming back. I think I’d still be young enough that if I could win a championship by 25, go run Formula 1 for a few years and be back (in NASCAR) by 28.”

That window has closed for Busch, who turns 34 in May.

But he doesn’t sound as if someone who has completely closed the door on considering the possibility again. So in the unlikely event an F1 team wanted to take a chance on a NASCAR champion in his late 30s …


Dustin Long’s report was intriguing on Cole Custer being the first choice as the replacement driver Sunday if an ailing Austin Dillon fell out of the No. 3 Chevrolet – and not just because Custer was consuming a “jumbo platter” when he got the call.

Typically, such arrangements don’t happen with drivers crossing manufacturer lines. But the time and travel constraints of the Fontana race made Custer (a native of nearby Orange County who had lingered after his Ford won Saturday’s Xfinity race) the easiest choice.

In the “corporate teammates” era in which automaker hardball on brand loyalty often is a barrier to drivers moonlighting as often as yesteryear, it was refreshing to confirm it doesn’t preclude a common-sense decision such as this.


Fontana again stirred some passionate debate about the efficacy of the 2019 rules package, which virtually has guaranteed wild restarts but also has produced a surprising amount of green-flag racing (there’s been one crash that could be considered “multicar” – and even that was a stretch – over 1,300 miles at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana).

Two more points seem relevant:

–Kyle Busch’s 2.354-second margin of victory was a fraction of Martin Truex Jr.’s 11.685-second thumping at the same 2-mile oval last year.

–If you are advocating dumping the tapered spacers that limit horsepower to 550 at tracks such as Fontana, here’s your friendly reminder that restoring last year’s horsepower numbers would take a herculean effort by engine manufacturers who have already mapped out months of inventory at the current parameters. Reverting to 2018 probably would require months of hardware and logistical challenges.


NASCAR President Steve Phelps told the Arizona Republic that April 1 is the goal for releasing the 2020 schedule.

While next year’s slate likely won’t be unveiled this week, there is momentum within NASCAR for targeting the week between races at Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.

It still is expected to feature a fresh approach to the calendar, but any venue changes won’t happen until 2021, as Phelps said last month.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Auto Club recap, Turning Point

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and will recap all the action from the weekend’s racing at Auto Club Speedway.

Steve Letarte is joined by Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett.

The trio will dissect the turning point of the race and discuss what happened Friday in qualifying.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Penalty report from Auto Club Speedway

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NASCAR has issued one fine for an unsecured lug nut during the Auto Club Speedway race weekend.

Chris Gabehart, crew chief on Denny Hamlin‘s No. 11 Toyota, was fined $10,000 for the infraction.

No other penalties were announced.