Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway
The season of surprises keeps on giving in 2021 as Kyle Larson came away with a victory last Sunday at Las Vegas. Though many folks – including myself – expected Larson to eventually win this season, nobody knew it would happen this fast after being suspended for the majority of last season and an offseason switch to a new team. Alas, Hendrick fans everywhere are happy as the team has brought home victories in two straight races and now head to a track where fellow Hendrick driver Chase Elliott brought home a championship last season.
This week the teams stay out west as they head to the desert of Phoenix for an early season race on the track where the 2021 championship will ultimately be decided in November. Phoenix offers us our first glimpse of short track racing this season as it features a flat 1-mile layout that tests cars breaking and handling in the corners.
The Instacart 500 is a 500-kilometer race around a 1-mile Phoenix Raceway. The race will consist of 312 laps, and like Las Vegas is run twice per season; once early in the regular season and again in the final week of the season. In the six races that have taken place at the track over the last three seasons, Kyle Busch has won twice, while Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have also picked up one victory apiece.
Chances are one of these five guys takes home the win again but check below to see if there are any surprise candidates outside these five that have a chance.
Drivers I Like
You can’t talk Phoenix without bringing up the name Kevin Harvick. Harvick has won an astonishing nine times in 36 career Phoenix races. Harvick’s most recent victory came in the spring of 2018, but at one point he strung together four-consecutive wins at the track spanning the 2013-2015 seasons. Over the last six races at Phoenix, Harvick is second in average finish (4.83) with a lowest finish of ninth. He seems like a lock for a top-ten, as he is in the midst of a streak of 15 straight top-ten finishes at the track. He had a lackluster performance last week, which is a little discouraging, but I’d still bet on Harvick to bounce back to his top-ten ways this week. His average Phoenix finish sits at 8.92 over a 36-race span and Harvick has never failed to finish a race at Phoenix, chalking up zero DNFs in 36 races. Despite others having more recent success, you can’t look past Harvick this weekend. If he had gotten me the win in the one-and-done last week, I’d be using him again.
Kyle Busch should open this week as the favorite, as he is the one driver with an average finish better than Harvick’s over the past six races at Phoenix (3.33.) Busch is coming off a strong run at Las Vegas where he had one of the best racecars late in the running as he charged through the field for a third-place finish. Busch has won two of the last six races at Phoenix and has three total victories at the track. Busch has led the most laps at Phoenix over the past six seasons, leading a whopping 491 laps. He also trails just Kevin Harvick with a worst finish of 11th over that span. Harvick and Busch both stand out above the rest this weekend, but it’s been a surprising season, so anything could happen.
Denny Hamlin enters Phoenix as the Cup Series points leader despite not yet winning this season. He’s been supremely consistent this season and heads to a track where he has been the model of consistency in the past. Hamlin has won a pair of Phoenix races in his career (spring 2012 and fall 2019) while also chalking up 14 top-fivess in 31 career races. Hamlin trails just Harvick and Busch in career laps led at the track (821) and comes in with an average finish of 7.83 over the last six races. Hamlin’s hot start and the Gibbs cars looking fast early this season bodes well for the veteran driver this weekend.
I’m sure Chase Elliott can’t wait to get to Phoenix this weekend after some tough luck on the 1.5-mile tracks recently. Elliott is the most recent winner at the track, picking up the win and the Cup Series championship at the track last fall. Elliott needs a strong run to get his season back on track this weekend. Elliott spun out at the Daytona road course, was the lowest finishing Hendrick car at Homestead and then spun out again at Las Vegas last week. He hasn’t had a top-ten since the Daytona 500, but this weekend will give him a solid chance. Elliott’s career average finish at Phoenix is 11.8, but he has led 262 laps in the last six races there
Kyle Larson is the last driver on my list once again this week. When you’re hot, you’re hot and right now Larson is en fuego. Coming off a win at Las Vegas – his first win at a 1.5-mile track – Larson enters another track at which he has never won but has produced good results. In his last five races at Phoenix, Larson has collected three top-fives and sports an average finish of 7.00. Larson has only led 71 career laps in 13 races at the track, but he’s run up front in every race this season and the Hendrick cars have looked strong at every style track so far. If you can find him for +1000 or better at any sportsbook this week – which will be tough coming off a win – lay down a little money and see if Larson can’t hit in back-to-back weeks.
Drivers I’m Avoiding
Alex Bowman is an interesting driver to put on the avoid list this week. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed time in the 2016 season due to a concussion, Bowman stepped in at Phoenix and went on to win the pole, lead 194 laps and came home with a sixth-place finish, making Phoenix seem like one of his best tracks. But don’t be fooled; since that time, Bowman has never led another lap at Phoenix Raceway and has never finished in the top-ten. Over the last six races at Phoenix, Bowman sports an average finish of 21.83 with just three top-20 finishes including a best finish of 13th. Even with Team Hendrick’s early-season success, Bowman was the worst Hendrick car by far last weekend when he came home with a 27th place finish, two laps down thanks to a flat tire late in the race. I’m worried about Bowman’s recent struggles and struggles at Phoenix. I’m staying away this week.
Austin Dillon makes the avoid list this week, as Phoenix has not been kind to him in the past either. In the last six Phoenix races, Dillon sports an average finish of 20.67 with just one top-ten finish. In 14 career races at the track, Dillon has never led a single lap and has a career-high finish of eighth place. Short and flat tracks are not Dillon’s forte, so this is an easy situation to avoid this weekend. Take a week off from backing Dillon.
Aric Almirola is off to the worst start of any driver that made the playoffs last season. Almirola has been caught up in on-track incidents in three-of-four races this season and has a season-best finish of 17th at the Daytona road course – the only race in which he finished on the lead lap. Almirola finished dead last at Las Vegas last week and sits all the way back in 28th in the points standings. At Phoenix, Almirola has also shown struggles over his career. Almirola’s career average finish at Phoenix is 14.8, though he does have four top-ten finishes over the last six races. It's still a risk to roll with Almirola this week, though a starting spot deep in the field makes him an intriguing DraftKings' play.
Chris Buescher flexed his muscles two weeks ago at Homestead when he led multiple laps and won the opening stage, but Phoenix is a much different story, in fact its one of his worst tracks. In ten career starts at Phoenix, Buescher has never even cracked the top-15. His average finish over the last six races is 19.33 which includes five finishes in between 16th and 20th. I can’t imagine Buescher being a contender this weekend despite him rattling off three-straight top-20 finishes over the past three weeks.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has been a quiet contender all season with four-straight top-20 performances to get the season underway. Unfortunately for Stenhouse, Phoenix ranks among his worst tracks as well. Over the past six races, Stenhouse has finished in the top-20 only twice and has led just one lap. His career best finish at the track is fourth, but that is his lone top-five performance in 16 tries. His career average finish at the track is 20.31. Don’t expect him to contend this weekend.
($50,000 budget, 6 driver lineup)
Our Las Vegas lineup ranked as one to forget for sure. I selected Harvick because I assumed he was a lock to lead a lot of laps early and finish in the top-ten, instead he slid from the lead to 20th in the first few laps of the race and never recovered. Aric Almirola knocked down the fence and finished in last place while not enough cars dropped out to help Timmy Hill move forward. Cole Custer also failed to improve on his 20th place starting position as the Stewart-Haas cars had a terrible weekend. Time to try to bounce back at Phoenix.
Last week: 128.05 pts.
1. Kyle Larson ($9,600)
2. Aric Almirola ($9,000)
3. Alex Bowman ($8,700)
4. Matt DiBenedetto ($8,500)
5. Bubba Wallace ($7,200)
6. Corey Lajoie ($6,000)
Remaining Budget: $1,000
Wow did Kyle Larson pay off big for us last week. Not only did we hit our second winner of the season when Larson visited victory lane Sunday at Las Vegas, we also hit two other props thanks to Larson. Larson’s win at +1000 helped us break even on the week, but some extra wins helped put us in the green. Larson finishing ahead of Denny Hamlin and finishing as the top Chevrolet hit for us, while Chris Buescher finishing ahead of Bubba Wallace also hit. Unfortunately, Martin Truex Jr. missed the top-five by just one spot and was the third best finishing Toyota despite the 6th-place finish, but we can’t be too greedy, right? We gained nine units last week and we’re now up 18.8 units on the season. It’s been a good start to the season, lets carry the momentum into Phoenix.
Kyle Larson over Joey Logano (-109, 1 unit)
Aric Almirola over Matt DiBenedetto (-115, 1.5 units)
Ryan Newman over Chase Briscoe (-143, 1.5 units)
Kyle Busch Top Toyota (+190, 1 unit)
Kevin Harvick Top Ford (+250, 1 unit)
Kyle Busch to win (+800, 1.5 units)
Kyle Larson to win (+900, 1.5 unit)
Aric Almirola to win (+5000, 0.5 unit)
Any driver to win Stages 1 and 2 and the race (+650, 0.5 unit)
One and Done
*Rules for One and Done: Each driver can only be picked one time over the course of the season, unless you pick the race winner, then that driver can be picked again. Driver’s finishing position is the number of “points” you score each week. Goal: Finish with as few points as possible. Feel free to play along!
Kevin Harvick picked a poor time to cool off. Last season Harvick started the season with eight-consecutive top-tens and this season he was off to a similar start. Unfortunately, Harvick’s ill-handing car forced him back in the pack where contact with Erik Jones produced a tire rub that dropped him even further in the field. Harvick never recovered and finished in 20th as the highest-finishing Stewart-Haas car in the field. This is our worst finish on the season and more than doubled our score on the season. We’ll look for a bounce back at Phoenix.
I’m using another big hitter this week as Kyle Busch looks to be in good form recently as he heads into a track where he has led 1,190 career laps. Rowdy is coming off back-to-back top-ten finishes at Homestead and Las Vegas and has finished top-ten in five of the last six races at Phoenix. I’m hoping he stays hot and at the very least gives us a top-ten, though a top-five or even a win would be outstanding. We need to hit a winner or two at some point in the one-and-done to avoid using as many back markers as possible later in the year. Busch gives us a strong chance this week.
Race Driver Finish
Daytona 500 Jamie McMurray 8th
Daytona RC A.J. Allmendinger 7th
Homestead Tyler Reddick 2nd
Las Vegas Kevin Harvick 20th