Drivers to watch for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix

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The top teams in NASCAR are still finding their way to Victory Lane to open the 2022 Cup Series season.

This week, Phoenix Raceway poses a unique challenge, as teams visit the 1-mile oval for the first of two races this year. The other, of course, is the title-deciding race during championship weekend in November, forcing teams to put more emphasis on Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox) as they continue to learn the Next Gen car.

Who should be expected at the head of the pack as the West Coast Swing winds to a close? And who needs their luck to turn around after just three races?


Kyle Larson

  • Points position: First
  • Finishes in first three races: 32nd (DNF) — Daytona 500; WIN — Auto Club Speedway; Second — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: Six straight finishes of seventh or better at Phoenix (missed Nov. 2020 race, suspension), including November 2021 victory.

A runner-up finish last week at Las Vegas makes Larson the only driver with two top-five finishes in 2022. He heads back to Phoenix for the first time since winning his first Cup championship in November.

His recent Phoenix numbers have been phenomenal, even before he climbed into Hendrick Motorsports’ top-tier equipment. Larson has four top fives in his last five Phoenix races and has scored points in 13 of his 18 stages there, including two stage victories.

Larson’s performance here last spring was admittedly not stellar — ninth in Stage 1, 13th in Stage 2, led one lap and finished seventh after two separate speeding penalties — but he and crew chief Cliff Daniels clearly learned enough to come back and claim the title eight months later.

Let’s not forget that Larson has also won five of the last eight races. The No. 5 team is still the hottest in NASCAR.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: Second
  • Finishes in first three races: 13th — Daytona 500 and Auto Club Speedway; Eighth — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: Five top-10 finishes in last six races, including top-two finishes in both 2021 events.

Truex is the defending race winner this week, the latest triumph in a long stretch of excellence at Phoenix. Since joining Joe Gibbs Racing in 2019, Truex has three top-two finishes in six Phoenix races. He seemed poised to collect his second Cup championship in November, leading teammate Denny Hamlin through what looked to be the final run. But a caution with 30 laps to go — followed by the pit stop of a lifetime by Larson’s team — thwarted that path to the title and instead finished second.

The task is to continue this run of success this weekend. Truex believes the January test provided plenty data to lean on entering this week.

“We felt like we learned a ton at the test that hopefully gives us an idea of what we need to bring back,” Truex said in a release. “That was our first time on a smaller, flatter track in these cars, so we really went to work on trying as many things as possible that we can use and build on throughout the year.”

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: Seventh
  • Finishes in first three races: 10th — Daytona 500; 26th — Auto Club Speedway; Ninth — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: Three straight top fives at Phoenix including 2020 title win.

Elliott is a contender every time NASCAR rolls into Arizona. The 2020 champion has four consecutive top-seven finishes to accompany his top-five streak and has scored points in 18 of the 20 stages at Phoenix.

The No. 9 team tops the series in average running position at 8.190, according to NASCAR’s loop data statistics, barely edging nine-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick.

Elliott has shown speed in every race this season, including a fierce battle for the lead at Auto Club Speedway with 20 laps to go before contact from teammate Kyle Larson. Hendrick Motorsports has also won each of the last two races with Larson and Alex Bowman. Another top five from Elliott seems probable this weekend.


Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 30th
  • Finishes in first three races: 37th (DNF) — Daytona 500; 15th — Auto Club Speedway; 32nd (DNF) — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: Five top fives in last six races, including a 2019 win that sent him to the Championship 4.

Hamlin is off to the worst start of his career after three races, holding an average finish of 28.0 and sitting 30th in points. The last time Hamlin began with an average finish even close to this was 2008, his third full-time season when he began the year with a 22.3 average.

The good news for Hamlin is that Phoenix is next, a track at which he has excelled lately. In addition to his recent top-five accumulation, Hamlin has finished fourth or better in each of the last three Phoenix contests. In last year’s title race, Hamlin qualified third, finished fourth in Stage 1, finished third in Stage 2 and ultimately finished third after leading 33 laps.

So maybe a bad start can be wiped away with a strong run Sunday at Phoenix.

“Everyone on the team is very confident,” Hamlin said in a press release. “We know what we’re capable of and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota are doing a great job giving us cars capable of running up front. It’s just a matter of getting to the finish without anything crazy happening and unfortunately, that has been easier said than done so far. At the end of the day, we just have to go out and execute and we’ll be fine.”

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 16th
  • Finishes in first three races: 30th (DNF) — Daytona 500; Seventh — Auto Club Speedway; 12th — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: 12 top fives in last 17 races

Anytime the series rolls into Phoenix, Harvick’s name rockets to the top of the list of contenders. With nine career wins at the 1-mile oval and 17 straight top 10s, omitting the No. 4 team from this list would be inexcusable.

His 2022 has been quiet so far and largely overshadowed by his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates’ success. Aric Almirola remains the only driver with top 10s in each of the year’s opening races, and Chase Briscoe has been near the front early and often.

Harvick, as is typical for the 2014 Cup champion, has been lurking and collecting good-but-not-flashy finishes. That can easily change at Phoenix, where he last won in 2018.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 12th
  • Finishes in first three races: Ninth — Daytona 500; 27th — Auto Club Speedway; 24th — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: Three straight top 10s, including a fourth-place finish in November.

Keselowski has shown early speed in his new venture driving the No. 6 Ford for the RFK Racing program he now co-owns. But the results so far have been mixed.

After winning his qualifying Duel race at Daytona and contending for the Daytona 500 win, the 2012 champion has spun at least once in each of the last two races at Auto Club and Las Vegas. Surely that comes as he continues to adapt to the Next Gen car, but those incidents are costing him results.

In Phoenix, Keselowski has finished inside the top 10 in five of the last seven events since the start/finish line was moved. He’s also led 164 laps over the past eight races at Phoenix, spending time out front in six of the last events.

NASCAR Cup playoff standings after Coca-Cola 600


The severe penalty to Chase Briscoe and his Stewart-Haas Racing team Wednesday for a counterfeit part dropped Briscoe from 17th to 31st in the season standings. Briscoe now must win a race to have a chance at the playoffs.

The penalty came a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for his retaliation in wrecking Denny Hamlin in Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. Elliott is 28th in the points. The 2020 Cup champion also needs to win to have a chance to make the playoffs.

Ten drivers have won races, including Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney. That leaves six playoff spots to be determined by points at this time. With 12 races left in the regular season, including unpredictable superspeedway races at Atlanta (July 9) and Daytona (Aug. 26), the playoff standings will change during the summer.

Among those without a win this season are points leader Ross Chastain and former champions Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Elliott.

Here’s a look at the Cup playoff standings heading into Sunday’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois. Drivers in yellow have won a race and are in a playoff position. Those below the red line after 16th place are outside a playoff spot in the graphic below.

NASCAR issues major penalties to Chase Briscoe team for Charlotte infraction


NASCAR fined crew chief John Klausmeier $250,000 and suspended him six races, along with penalizing Chase Briscoe and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team 120 points and 25 playoff points each for a counterfeit part on the car.

The issue was a counterfeit engine NACA duct, said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, on Wednesday. That is a single-source part.

MORE: Updated Cup playoff standings

The team stated that it accepts the L3 penalty.

“We had a quality control lapse and a part that never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack ended up on the No. 14 car at Charlotte,” said Greg Zipadelli in a statement from the team. “We accept NASCAR’s decision and will not appeal.”

Asked how then piece could have aided performance, Sawyer said Wednesday: “Knowing the race team mentality, they don’t do things that would not be a benefit to them in some way, shape or form from a performance advantage.”

The penalty drops Briscoe from 17th in the season standings to 31st in the standings. Briscoe goes from having 292 points to having 172 points. He’ll have to win to make the playoffs. Briscoe has no playoff points at this time, so the penalty puts him at -25 playoff points should he make it.

Briscoe’s car was one of two taken to the R&D Center after Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 for additional tear down by series officials.

The penalty comes a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

NASCAR Championship Weekend returns to Phoenix in 2024


Phoenix Raceway will host the championship races for the Cup, Xfinity, Craftsman Truck and ARCA Menards Series in 2024, NASCAR announced Wednesday.

The races will be held Nov. 1-3, 2024. The Cup season finale will be Nov. 3, 2024. The only other Cup race for 2024 that has been announced is the Daytona 500. It will be held Feb. 18, 2024.

Phoenix Raceway has hosted the championship finale for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks since 2020. Chase Elliott won the Cup title there in 2020. Kyle Larson followed in 2021. Joey Logano won the crown there in 2022.

This year’s Cup finale at Phoenix will be Nov. 5 and air on NBC.



Drivers to watch at World Wide Technology Raceway


After the fireworks from the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR heads to World Wide Technology Raceway, a 1.25-mile speedway just outside of St. Louis. Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1) marks the second time the Cup Series has raced at this track.

Much is at stake. The race to win the regular season championship has intensified. Tempers are high. The pressure to make the playoffs builds. Ten drivers have wins this season. Twelve races remain in the regular season.


Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 11th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Richmond, Martinsville)
  • Past at WWTR: 12th last year

While a driver coming off back-to-back finishes of 20th or worse might not seem like a frontrunner, it actually does make Larson one. His topsy-turvy season has seen him place outside the top 10 in back-to-back races four times. In the three previous times he had consecutive finishes outside the top 10, he came back to finish second, first and second. Can he keep that streak going this weekend?

Bubba Wallace

  • Points position: 15th
  • Best finish this season: 4th (Las Vegas I, Kansas I, Coca-Cola 600)
  • Past at WWTR: 26th last year

Wallace has scored three consecutive top-five finishes, his best streak in his Cup career. He has climbed from 21st to 15th in the standings during this run.

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Las Vegas I, Phoenix I, Darlington I)
  • Past at WWTR: 19th last year

Byron has finished no worse than seventh in the last five races. He’s led nearly 20% of the laps run during that time. Byron has averaged nearly 47 points a race during that streak.


Corey LaJoie

  • Points position: 20th
  • Best finish this season: 4th (Atlanta I)
  • Past at WWTR: 36th last season

NASCAR’s one-race suspension to Chase Elliott gives LaJoie the chance to drive a Hendrick Motorsports car for the first time. This will be the best car LaJoie has driven in his career. Many eyes will be on him to see how he does.

Ross Chastain

Chastain has finished 29th and 22nd in the last two points races. He’s not gone more than three races without a top-10 finish this season. After his struggles last weekend at Charlotte, Chastain saw his lead cut to one point over Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney in the standings. Five drivers are within 17 points of Chastain in the season standings.

Aric Almirola

  • Points position: 26th
  • Best finish this season: 6th (Martinsville I)
  • Past at WWTR: 5th last year

Almirola has finished 13th or worse in all but one race this season for Stewart-Haas Racing. In the five races since placing sixth at Martinsville, Almirola has finished an average of 21.0.