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March 9, 2024

What to Watch: Title-fight preview ahead at Phoenix Raceway?

Shriners Children’s 500

(⏰ Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET | FOX | MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Weekend schedule | TV schedule | Weather tracker | NASCAR 101

Location: Avondale, Arizona
Track length: 1 mile
Cup Series race purse: $7,806,252
Race distance: 312 laps | 312 miles
Stages: 60 | 185 | 312

Starting lineup: Hamlin charges to 41st career pole
Pit stall assignments:
Where drivers will pit Sunday
Defending winner:
William Byron, March 2023

Key things to watch

Friday and Saturday sessions

Toyota shined in Friday’s extended 50-minute practice session, with six Toyota Camry XSEs claiming top-10 spots in single-lap speed and posting five of the seven best 10-lap averages. Fastest overall in the session was Joey Logano, whose No. 22 Team Penske Ford Dark Horse Mustang has qualified on the front row in each of the three NASCAR Cup Series races so far this season. | Read practice recap

Toyota’s speed carried into Saturday’s qualifying session as Denny Hamlin rocketed to his 41st career pole and the manufacturer’s 150th at the Cup level. The No. 11 car was P2 in Friday’s practice and will be joined by sophomore teammate Ty Gibbs on the front row. Toyotas make up four of this week’s top six starters. | Read qualifying recap

Big story line

Will Sunday provide a preview of the 2024 championship fight?

Exactly eight months from Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series will return to the Arizona desert with a championship on the line. But will anything teams learn from a race in March apply when they return for the season finale on Nov. 10?

Joey Logano, the 2022 Cup title and finale race winner, argues there is a “fair amount” that teams can take from Sunday that could inform what we see come November.

“The cars don’t change that much,” Logano said Saturday. “Obviously, with the new rules package, we’ll take more from it. And you have practice at both of these races, so you take some of that with you throughout the year, but I don’t think it’d be that different when we come back.”

In the spring race of 2023, all of the eventual Championship 4 finished sixth or better: William Byron won ahead of Ryan Blaney with Kyle Larson fourth and Christopher Bell sixth. That wasn’t lost on Tyler Reddick, who finished third — the only top-four finisher that day who didn’t return to Avondale in the title hunt.

“I was in the mix,” Reddick said. “I was excited about that if we could make it back here in that fight. We obviously didn’t but yeah. … If you looked at the closing laps of this race, you know, three of the top four were the championship contenders.”

Even with 245 days between Phoenix races — the most between a track’s two events on the schedule — 2012 champion Brad Keselowski believes data learned from the spring is perhaps more valuable now than ever.

“With this car, a lot more translates than what translated with the old car,” Keselowski said. “With the old car, I felt like you were always in a development cycle … and things were always changing. … With this car, just by the nature of how its governed and amalgamated and so forth, you don’t have that, at least especially not in the third season of this car. So I think it’s probably a better indicator than it used to be and what to expect.”

Denny Hamlin celebrates his pole win at Phoenix.
Getty Images

History tells us…

Ryan Blaney will be one to watch this weekend. The defending Cup champion has been runner-up in each of the last three Phoenix races but has yet to visit Victory Lane — though he enjoyed the spoils of the championship celebration on Phoenix’s frontstretch some four months ago.

The No. 12 Ford will take the green flag from 16th position after Saturday’s qualifying session but that shouldn’t sound too many alarm bells. Blaney fired off from 15th back in November before charging to the front and putting himself in position to bring home the title. Maybe he can leave with another trophy on Sunday.

He may not be the betting favorite to win, but watch out for…

Chase Briscoe. At 20-1 odds, the driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford makes for a sneaky pick this weekend. Briscoe earned his first career Cup win in the 2022 spring race at Phoenix and showed speed again Saturday, placing his car eighth on the starting grid. The Indiana native has finished inside the top 10 in three of his four Phoenix starts as well as in each of his four Xfinity Series starts. Briscoe hasn’t visited Victory Lane since that win in March 2022 and could use another trip. | Phoenix odds

Speed reads

Our biggest pieces of the week — get covered for race day from all angles.

– Turning Point: Trends from Vegas, heading to Phoenix | Read article
– Why ‘representation is so important’:
Caruth’s win, interview highlight | Read article
– Elliott eyes return to Victory Lane:
2020 champ “willing to take however many steps it takes” | Read article
– New short-track package:
Drivers react after Friday practice | Read article
– RFK Racing appeals penalty:
No. 17 team penalized after lost Vegas wheel | Read article
– NASCAR Classics: Picks to click from our video library for Phoenix viewing | Read article
36 for 36: NASCAR survivor pool selections for Phoenix | Read article
Memory lane: Through the years with Phoenix Raceway’s biggest moments | See the photos
– Inside the numbers: Racing Insights projects the final race results | Read article
At-track photos: Scenes, sights from the desert | Photo gallery
– Fantasy Fastlane: Lineup advice for Phoenix | See fantasy tips
– Paint Scheme Preview: Painting the Phoenix desert | Pick a favorite
– Power Rankings: Chastain looks like big-time force | Latest driver rankings

Fast facts

Race-relevant statistics, brought to you by the experts at Racing Insights.

– Hendrick Motorsports is three laps led away from 80,000.
– There were 10 speeding penalties at Phoenix last March, the most in a race last season.
– 23XI Racing is the only team to have a car finish in the top five in each of the first three races this year.