The Petty family has some company. Kyle Busch passed Ryan Blaney for the lead with 17 laps remaining in Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 and never looked back en route to his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory of the season. The win, was Busch’s 52nd all-time in NASCAR’s premiere series and 199th overall.
He’s now two wins shy of tying Lee Petty for 10th on the all-time wins list in the Cup Series and one win shy of tying Richard Petty for the most ever in NASCAR at 200.
Kyle Busch during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway on March 10, 2019 in Avondale, Arizona.
Like it or not, Busch is coming.
He also sweeps the weekend at the ISM Raceway in Phoenix earning a win in dominating fashion on Saturday in NASCAR XFINITY Series competition after leading 116 of the 200 laps. That was his 11th trip to victory lane in 23 tries at Phoenix in the XFINITY Series. He also has two Truck Series wins on the 1.015-mile track as well. Combine that with three Cup wins and 16 of Busch’s 199 NASCAR victories have come in the Arizona desert.
In Sunday’s race, Busch led 177 of the 312 laps in his No. 18 Toyota. He took over the lead on Lap 36 but pitted shortly after. After leading 20 more laps, he hit pit lane after Brad Keselowski’s incident in Turn 1 on Lap 65. With the first stage ending just a few laps later, he gave up stage points for track position in the second stage. It paid off, he cycled to the lead and would hold the top spot for 115 of the next 116 laps.
He’d take over the lead again on Lap 201 and set sail on everyone else. But, a Chase Elliott spin in Turn 4 on Lap 218 brought some strategy calls. Busch, took four tires on that pit stop while Richard Childress Racing played games.
Daniel Hemric didn’t pit while his teammate Austin Dillon took fuel only. Five cars behind Dillon took only two tires which sent Busch from first to eighth. He bided his time then capitalized when it mattered most and earned his fourth top six finishes in as many tries this season.
His teammate Martin Truex Jr. brought his No. 19 Toyota home runner-up for the second time in the last three weeks. It was also his third top five finish in his last four Phoenix starts.
Ryan Blaney had to slow down to save fuel in the end, which is why Truex so easily got by as Blaney brought his No. 12 Ford home third. The pole sitter led 95 laps on Sunday and nabbed his first top 20 of the year. It was also his first top five finish of his career in Phoenix.
Aric Almirola finished fourth in his No. 10 Ford while Denny Hamlin gave JGR three cars in the top five with a fifth place run in his No. 11 Toyota.
We’ve now had four different winners to start the year off with all four legitimate title favorites. Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500 while Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski (Atlanta) and Joey Logano (Las Vegas) won the last two weeks prior.
Here are some takeaways from Sunday’s race in Phoenix.
Aero Package Needs Some Work Still
For the third straight week, we saw the new rules package in place. For the third straight week, I also didn’t see much of a difference between the years past and the current race. Yes, the racing metrics are up, but only slightly. When so much work was made this offseason to make radical changes to the racing package, we should see radical changes to the racing itself. Instead, it’s only minimal. Granted, it’s not worse, but it’s only slightly better.
That’s a problem.
Sunday’s race in Phoenix was a track position race. Yes, the fastest cars still found their ways up front, but how do we know that they would have been the fastest when others cars weren’t up front yet?
The best cars in my opinion finished where they should have, but the racing and unpredictability isn’t there.
The three races have all been won by the top drivers are those respective tracks. Busch, has three straight top two finishes in the Cup Series at Phoenix including seven top three results in his last eight starts in the desert. It’s not shocking he led 177 laps on Sunday.
All three races have seen drivers lead a ton of laps. We weren’t supposed to see that.
Kyle Larson led 150 laps in Atlanta. The lap leaders last week were in the 80 laps range. Sunday, Busch led 177.
The only thing to NASCAR side though is none of the three tracks have run with the same package. Atlanta had the tapered spacer but no aero ducts. Vegas has both the tapered spacer as well as the aero ducts. Phoenix had neither.
The racing never looked any different than last year’s races at all three tracks. But, what happens when we see these packages run again this year? The notes from these races may hopefully help.
Much Needed Day From Blaney In Otherwise Quiet Day From Penske
I wrote earlier this week how Phoenix could be Penske’s kryptonite this week. Brad Keselowski had just one top five finish since 2015. Joey Logano had four straight finishes outside of the top 10. Ryan Blaney had never scored a top five on this Phoenix track.
But, after all the preliminary action was done on Saturday, it appeared that Penske may continue their season dominance at one of their historically worst tracks.
Instead, water found its level.
Keselowski had early race problems and finished 19th. Logano, finished 10th. Blaney though, started on the pole and led the second most laps (95) and finished third.
It was much needed for Blaney though. He finished 23rd in Daytona and 22nd in each of the last two weeks. Now, he’s back on track with a top five, his first at Phoenix.
Joe Gibbs Racing vs. Team Penske For 2019 Title?
Busch, earned the win but his teammate Martin Truex Jr. finished second for a 1-2 result for JGR. Count Denny Hamlin’s fifth place run and they took three of the top five positions.
Erik Jones brought out the first caution of the day and limped home 29th. But, the others shined and it shows that JGR can give the Penske’s a run for their money this year.
They’re the two only teams to have won this season with Hamlin winning in Daytona and Busch in Phoenix. Keselowski and Logano won the middle two races in Atlanta and Vegas.
Hamlin, has four top 11 finishes in as many tries. Busch, has four top six finishes while Truex has three top eight finishes including two runner-ups.
Keselowski, has two top two finishes in the last three races while Logano has three top 10’s in four tries.
This is going to be a Penske vs. JGR fight to the finish.
Chip Ganassi Racing Quietly Behind Penske/JGR
One team to watch moving forward is the Chip Ganassi Racing camp. Kurt Busch brought his No. 1 Chevrolet home seventh on Sunday for his seventh top 10 finishes in his last 11 Phoenix starts. It was also his third straight top seven finish on the season.
His teammate Kyle Larson has been fast too. He finished seventh in Daytona and now sixth on Sunday. Larson, started 31st too. This was his fourth top six finishes in his last six Phoenix starts. If not for a pit road speeding penalty in Atlanta while leading and a pit road penalty last week in Vegas, those two 12th place results would have likely landed him at the very least in the top 10.
To me, the third best organization right now is Ganassi.
Johnson Back In The Top 10
Maybe Johnson’s sickness was a legitimate excuse. He started not felling well in Atlanta and finished 24th, two laps down. The next week in Vegas, he was really sick and came home 19th. But, in the two races that he was healthy, he came away with top 10’s.
Johnson, brought his No. 48 Chevrolet home ninth in Daytona and now eighth on Sunday in Phoenix.
Rare Phoenix Miss For Harvick
For just the third time since 2012, Harvick failed to lead a lap in Phoenix. He never really was a factor in his ninth place finish on Sunday. It was his worst finish since 2013 on the Arizona oval. While that sounds absurd to call a ninth place run a “bad day” for Harvick, just look at his past results there since 2012 – 2nd, 1st, 13th, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 4th, 6th, 5th, 1st, 5th.
For some reason, Harvick just seems a bit off this year. He’s dominated the early portions of the race, but faded from the middle of the second stage on. Once they can put a full race together, watch out.
Almirola A Championship Contender
I wrote last week how Almirola has become the second best driver at SHR. Now, he’s looking like a legitimate title threat. Almirola, earned his fourth straight top 10 finish in Phoenix and three top 10 of the season on Sunday.
He finished fourth in the November race at Phoenix last year and now fourth again this weekend. He’s a real factor.
Roush/Fenway Racing Close
If not for a crazy penalty on pit road on Lap 197, Ryan Newman was destined for a top 10 finish on Sunday. Still, he rebounded to a 12th place finish, his third top 14 finish in four tries in 2019.
His teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is too. He finished 13th on Sunday for his third top 13 finishes in four tries.
The duo are close, they just need a bit more speed. The thing is though, it looks like it’s coming.