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?

FRONT RUNNERS

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.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

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.