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.
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.
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.