Phoenix

Rotating the championship race to new tracks? Contenders have ideas

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Sunday’s Ford 400 will end an 18-year run for Homestead-Miami Speedway as the championship finale, which will move to ISM Raceway in 2020.

Should it stay there?

That became an open discussion among the championship round contenders Thursday at Championship Media Day.

Kevin Harvick, who has advocated rotating the finale for the past few years, suggested it again (without prompting) after the title-eligible drivers were asked for their feelings on leaving Miami.

In all honesty, it shouldn’t be in Phoenix (in 2021),” Harvick said. “I think having that championship race is important to new markets, new fans, exposing people to our sport.  It’s important. I think when you look at going to Phoenix, the things that it will bring to that facility, the new fans it will bring to that facility, they’re thriving on that exposure now even before the championship race is there. They will thrive on that notoriety, the things that happen for that championship race next year.”

After a Round of 8 finale at ISM Raceway that was criticized for a lack of passing (as many tracks 1 mile and shorter have been with the 2019 rules package), there were questions raised about the long-term viability of the Phoenix area oval playing host to the championship-deciding race.

But Harvick said the quality of racing shouldn’t be considered among the criteria.

“To me what happens in the race is irrelevant,” the 2014 champion said. “It’s great that we’re going to crown a champion. We all love Homestead. The event and the market and the notoriety, the new things that come to a new market that help carry that racetrack for a number of years to come are important.

“We have to use our championship event to rebuild enthusiasm in markets. I think that will be the first step to doing that.”

The Phoenix market has proved worthy with two consecutive grandstand sellouts, and it also has undergone a $178 million renovation that has been viewed as a major positive.

“Certainly, Phoenix has earned that opportunity with what they’ve done there and the fan support out there has been incredible,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “I think the plus about here at Homestead, we only come here once a year. Completely different racetrack than anywhere we go. No other track like it. No other mile‑and‑a‑half true oval. Long straightaways.  A lot of things are different about Homestead. We don’t race here in the spring. I like that fact.

“I don’t know that we should race for a championship somewhere where we raced already in the season, you know? You’re going to have an idea who is going to be good. This weekend is a total crapshoot because we haven’t been here in a year, it’s a new car, new tire, everything is different. You have no idea what to expect. That’s a good thing for the championship.”

Though there have been discussions about shortening the calendar length of the schedule, NASCAR would be limited on its venue options if the finale is kept in the mid-November timeframe it’s occupied for a couple of decades.

Besides Phoenix and Miami, the only other viable choices would seem to be Fontana (near Los Angeles), Las Vegas, Sonoma and Daytona (and the last two would seem unlikely anyway because of their road course and superspeedway designations).

Denny Hamlin vowed that the championship round eventually will return to Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I think the facilities could use updating, which I think they will,” Hamlin said. “This is not the last time the finale will be in Homestead. You can mark that down.”

“Phoenix now gets their time. They spent money on the facility. It’s obviously a huge sports town. They got nearly every professional sport there in that city. It’s just a good market for us. Why not continue to feed that momentum?”

Harvick said he had no overt preference on a location for the 2021 championship other than “it would not go back to Phoenix.That’s just really not the point of moving the championship race around to have it in the same spot consecutive years.

“So you’ve got (Fontana) in that mix. Vegas. Both of those racetracks would be great places to end the schedule.”

Ryan Newman snaps a long winless drought in the desert for Richard Childress Racing

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Ryan Newman took the lead by staying out under caution and won at Phoenix Raceway, ending a three-year winless drought for Richard Childress Racing.

It was the first victory in Cup for RCR since Kevin Harvick at Phoenix in November 2013, a stretch of 112 races. Newman, who joined RCR in 2014, snapped a 127-race winless skid dating to July 2013 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Newman credited the victory to crew chief Luke Lambert, who elected to keep the No. 31 Chevrolet on track instead of pitting for two tires as the driver had requested.

“What a gutsy call by Luke,” Newman told Fox Sports after his 18th victory in NASCAR’s premier series. “I called for two tires, and he called for none. I’ve won more races no tires than I have with four. I’m just proud of these guys. We had a good car all day. We kept it out of trouble and collected in the end.”

A brutally hot day in the Valley of the Sun affected Newman, who slumped over while being administered bags of ice in victory lane.

“I’m spent, man,” he said. “I had the chills on Lap 150. I’m done.”

Kyle Busch took the lead on a pit stop under yellow with 118 laps to go and seemed in command in search of his first victory of the season after being in the spotlight this past week because of a postrace altercation with Joey Logano. Busch wasn’t punished despite taking a swing after a last-lap crash with Logano at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Logano played a role in having a late-race impact again on Busch when his No. 22 Ford blew a right-front tire with six laps remaining, causing a caution that sent the race into overtime. Busch entered the pits with the lead but left in fifth behind three cars that stayed on the track: Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Martin Truex Jr.

Kyle Larson beat Busch out of the pits to start fourth on the restart. Larson finished second, his third consecutive runner-up finish and fourth in the past five races dating to last season’s finale.

Busch, who leap-frogged Chase Elliott into the lead during a caution for a wicked hit by Matt Kenseth (who emerged unscathed), staved off the field on two restarts before losing the lead. He was trying to end a 19-race winless streak dating to last July at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Busch finished third, followed by Stenhouse and Brad Keselowski.

First-time stage winners claimed the first two 75-lap segments of the race.

Logano started from the pole and led 82 of the first 84 laps to capture the first stage. But his No. 22 Ford dropped to 32nd on Lap 122 after a speeding penalty under yellow.

Elliott won the second stage after taking the lead on a three-wide move.

Jamie McMurray’s runner-up finish at Phoenix continues early season turnaround

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After a rough start to the season, things are starting to go in the right direction for Jamie McMurray.

The Joplin, Mo., native earned his best finish of the season, placing second to race winner Kevin Harvick in Sunday’s CampingWorld.com 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

It’s McMurray’s best finish since a victory at at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2013.

“We just had a really good weekend,” McMurray said. “Every practice our car was quick, and we qualified well. We just had a mistake-free day and really executed the race perfectly.”

Sunday’s runner-up showing was McMurray’s best in 24 Sprint Cup starts at Phoenix and only his second top-five (and third top 10) on the 1-mile oval.

But more importantly, McMurray’s future seems brighter after a dark start to 2015 with a 27th in the season-opening Daytona 500 and 40th at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

With an 11th last Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the second at Phoenix, McMurray has climbed from 32nd to 19th in the Sprint Cup standings.

McMurray felt he had a shot at a victory Sunday, particularly on the final restart. But Harvick, who led 224 laps, was just too strong.

“When we drove into turn one, I’m like, ‘I’m going to go like hell,’ and hope I could clear him,” McMurray said. “But the car just didn’t seem like it had the grip you needed, and I didn’t want to slide up and wipe everybody out.

“Did I think I had a chance? Yeah, but you just don’t ever know what you’re going to get when you get to the end.”

McMurray isn’t surprised by Harvick’s recent dominance, which he could see since the defending series champion’s arrival at Stewart-Haas Racing.

“Ever since he unloaded at the (presason) Charlotte test last year, the first lap, he literally was the fastest car and for a year it’s been that way,” McMurray said “They’re on a roll and I listen to Kevin talk, it just seems to be real good communication between he, (crew chief Rodney Childers), the engineer and the whole team.”

But McMurray also is meshing well with new crew chief Matt McCall in the No. 1 Chevrolet at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“I’m really happy with (finishing) second,” he said. “It would have been nice to be in Victory Lane and know you were locked into the Chase the way the point format goes.

“But as a group, our whole organization, the 1 team, Matt McCall, just awesome cars, and Matt made a great call to stay out (before the final restart). … He did a great job today.”

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Keselowski leads halfway at Phoenix, Harvick running strong

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Brad Keselowski is in the lead at the halfway point (after 156 laps) of Sunday’s CampingWorld.com 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway.

Keselowski has led the last 38 laps of the 312-lap event, taking the lead for the first time in the race on Lap 118.

The top 10 at halfway are Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., pole-sitter Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Harvick is having another stellar day as he seeks his fourth consecutive win – and fifth in his last six starts there – at Phoenix.

Harvick has led 94 laps. He entered the race with six straight top-two finishes, three wins and three seconds, dating to the last three races of his 2014 championship season. Harvick is seeking his second consecutive victory after winning last Sunday at Las Vegas.

Joey Logano, who started on the outside of the front row, has led 25 laps.

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