500 Preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup: Kevin Harvick carries plenty of momentum back to Phoenix, where the reigning champ has won the past three races contested in the Arizona desert.

By C.J. Radune, PSN analyst

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NASCAR Sprint Cup’s tour of the western United States continues this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway with the 500, where the early favorite is bound to be Kevin Harvick. The reigning champion not only swept both races there in 2014, but owns three consecutive wins at the track and four in the past five. Phoenix’s unique layout often can challenge teams to find a setup that will work well throughout a lap, and the hot sun can make the track slippery, which creates additional challenges. Harvick and his crew seem to have the magic recipe for success at this track, but competition is close in 2015.

Starting position is more important at Phoenix than it was for last weekend’s race in Las Vegas. The winner has started inside the top 10 in a whopping 46% of the 37 Phoenix races. More than 30% of the victors at the track have started inside the top five. As expected, Harvick holds the mark for most wins at the track among active drivers.

Drivers to watch: 500

Kevin Harvick – Fresh off of his first win of 2015 last weekend in Las Vegas, Harvick can rest a bit easier knowing that he will have an opportunity to defend his championship in the Chase. The team doesn’t appear to have given up much ground to the competition through the winter, and has been consistently fast since the season started. Harvick has won each of the last three Phoenix races, arrives as last week’s winner and defending Sprint Cup champion. There may be no other driver or team with as much momentum, but rest assured that back-to-back wins is difficult. It’ll take a special performance from the team to pay off on what are sure to be very short odds.

Jimmie Johnson – While he doesn’t hold the current record for wins at Phoenix, Johnson does stand out in the top-5 finish category. The Hendrick Motorsports driver claims 14 top-5 finishes from 23 starts at the track. His win tally of four is also impressive, though not as impressive as Harvick’s. Johnson has led almost 1,000 laps at Phoenix and is another driver who has one foot firmly in the season-ending Chase after his win in Atlanta two weeks ago. Johnson and Hendrick have been exceptionally stout competitors so far in 2015, and Phoenix could be a race where Johnson solidifies his spot in the Chase field with a second 2015 victory.

Martin Truex Jr. – Not many would have predicted Truex would be confidently holding station in the top five in points three races into 2015. His No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team is firing on all cylinders, and has yet to finish outside of the top 10 in any 2015 outing, including non-points races. This season is showing a more determined Truex on track, and the results are flowing through to the bottom line. He has just one top-5 finish at Phoenix from 18 tries, and his average finish is 17.7. Those numbers shouldn’t scare anyone away from his potential this week, though. Truex is outperforming expectations, and momentum is on his side.

Jeff Gordon – His final season hasn’t gotten off to the start Gordon would have liked, but he still shows flashes of strength each week. If he is able to see the checkered flag this weekend at Phoenix, chances are good that Gordon will be near the front of the field. His 22 top-10 finishes from 32 outings there sets the mark in that category, and he could certainly use a top-10 finish to halt his backslide this week. Two wrecks leave Gordon stands 29th in points, with just one finish inside the top 20. Still, a driver with two pole positions in the first three races obviously has something left in the bag. Luck simply hasn’t been on this team’s side.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – It is hard to not talk about Earnhardt when he is performing as well as he has been. From his Daytona 500 win in 2014 right up until today, Earnhardt appears to be a different driver, focused on winning a championship. All the details are falling into place, and Earnhardt is competitive each week, which is what will enable him to fight for the title. He is the highest-placed driver in the points without a win, and hasn’t finished outside of the top five in any of the three races. Earnhardt is also exceptional at Phoenix with two victories at the track, along with an average finish of 16.1 from 25 starts. It appears to be just a matter of time before Earnhardt joins the 2015 winner’s club.

Tony Stewart – Where is the old Tony Stewart? The team owner seems to be a shadow of himself, which is a carryover from a rather lackluster 2014 effort. Plenty of off-track distractions have impacted his ability to finish at the front of the field, and that is bad news for anyone waiting for him to turn things around. The No. 14 hasn’t finished better than 30th yet this season, and is currently 33rd in the standings. His average Phoenix finish of 12.4 from 25 races at the track is attractive, but folks should beware of his current trajectory. Stewart makes a risky play every week until the top results return and reflect rediscovered consistency.

Danica Patrick – Patrick is another Stewart-Haas Racing driver that appears to be struggling in 2015. She has just one top-20 finish in the early races to date, and Phoenix is a terrible track for her. Her average finish of 29.4 from five outings at the desert oval is the worst among active drivers. She has zero top Phoenix finishes yet, and has only finished on the lead lap there once. Even more worrying is the fact that she hasn’t shown much promise this year either. Patrick may present some upside potential at certain racetracks, but her current form coupled with dismal past performances at Phoenix make her a driver to avoid this week.

Kurt Busch – Busch may be this week’s biggest question mark. The driver of the No. 41 has been out of the cockpit since NASCAR suspended him for an off-track situation just prior to the Daytona 500. Busch was reinstated earlier in the week, and will race again in Phoenix. He is a past Phoenix winner, way back in 2005, and carries an average finish of 14.3 from 24 starts there. That puts him in the top 10 among active drivers this week. How he will respond to his prior suspension remains a question, though. Busch is a racer at heart and should be aggressive in his first race back, but his previous absence offers more questions than answers.