By Brennen McCall, NASCAR Contributor

The 2021 NASCAR season continued its trend of unpredictability in a thrilling race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this past weekend. The fourth race of the season saw its fourth different winner. Kyle Larson is no stranger to winning. The dirt racing prodigy has found victory in NASCAR’s highest level on six occasions before receiving the checkered flag in Vegas. While some consider Larson’s stock car career a bit of a bust, there’s something to be said about the overall speed of Chip Ganassi’s #42 when he was behind the wheel. It’s often believed Larson is the best driver in the current Cup field, but never had the best equipment available to really have a breakout year. So, when it was announced that Rick Hendrick was putting him in a rebranded #5 car, it got a lot of attention. Larson’s victory in Vegas was only his fourth race for Hendrick Motorsports, a company record. No driver has ever won in an HMS Chevy faster than Kyle Larson.

While the Vegas winner wasn’t a total surprise, the day’s losers were. Kevin Harvick finished in an uncharacteristic 20th place. All three of his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates finished behind him with Aric Almirola coming in dead last due to a tire failure. The cars seemed to lack maneuverability and raw speed. It isn’t time to hit the panic button just yet, but if SHR doesn’t figure out the problem soon, they could be in for a long season. The 1.5 mile ovals take up most of the Cup schedule. It’s crucial to find speed on these tracks if you want to make the playoffs. Luckily for Harvick, an opportunity to rebound is coming up this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.

Just five races ago, Phoenix hosted the Cup Playoff finale for the first time in history. Chase Elliott earned his first Cup Championship in a dominating victory in the Arizona desert. The 1-mile flat oval has become a staple in recent seasons. Renovations to the stands and to the track surface have made it a fun venue for fans and a unique challenge for drivers. The placement of start/finish at the exit of turn four sets up Phoenix’s signature “dogleg,” a slight left-turning kink before the entrance of turn one. Since the repave, the dogleg presents a mouth-watering option for drivers to completely cut under the racing groove on to the surface of the apron to gain an advantage on another car entering turn one. There is no out-of-bounce rule at Phoenix making restarts especially exciting. The moment drivers cross start/finish, they will turn left to undercut the dogleg. This creates exciting three, four, and five-wide scenarios fans adore.

Another factor that should play a role into this race is the track’s use of the PJ1 traction compound. It’s become a popular substance in recent years to try and create an extra racing groove. When tracks undergo a repave, the existing grooves are taken away and it takes time for them to form again in new pavement. The PJ1 at the very least gives drivers another option to travel through each corner. Some teams will base their setups on the level the grip found in these traction compounds.

Setups will also consider the use of the low downforce/high horsepower configuration teams will run this weekend. The short two-inch rear spoiler and smaller front splitter pared with an increased level of horsepower from 550 to 750 will make the cars more difficult to drive. Downforce plants the cars down toward the racetrack, creating more grip. Taking that downforce away makes the car overall more unstable. Adding more horsepower will only make the car more difficult to drive, especially when trying to power out of the low speed corners of Phoenix.

So, who are ones to watch on Sunday? Chase Elliott is the last driver to win in the Arizona desert. Considering the rules package used then will be the same used on Sunday, one would believe he would be just a strong again. Teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson have already notched a win and have shown great speed in every race so far. Kevin Harvick has nine wins at Phoenix, more wins than any driver in the field by far, but the last of those wins came in 2018. While he’s managed three top-five finishes since then, it’s been a few years since Harvick was considered the car to beat. Kyle Busch won here in 2019 and has remained fast earning two top-fives since that win. Busch had a subpar 2020 season and seems to be closer to a win now than he was at this point a year ago. Joey Logano won this race last year and finished third in the fall. While the #22 Ford has shown speed with his teammates Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney, they have yet to show up to a race in 2021 with the car to beat.

The winner of this race will have a car capable of rotating through all four corners without sacrificing speed on the straightway. Maintaining that speed is critical on long, green flag runs which could be the deciding factor of who wins on Sunday. Regardless of the outcome, the competition level at Phoenix is always worth tuning into for the restarts and side-by-side action. Let’s have ourselves a race!

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