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Ruoff Mortgage 500 at Phoenix Raceway

By Cody Smith

Three weeks into the 2022 Cup season and we’ve gotten three different winners as Alex “The Showman” Bowman found his way to victory lane. It wasn’t without some pit strategy and two hard-fought laps of racing at the end. Bowman was running in fourth place a few seconds behind races leaders Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. with just three laps to go.

When it seemed inevitable that Busch would pick up the victory, a caution flag came out when Erik Jones slapped the wall on the front stretch. With tires being a bit of a factor all day, everyone came down pit road for a fresh set which is where a call from crew chief Greg Ives put Bowman (and Hendrick teammates Kyle Larson and William Byron) in front of the Toyota duo. All of team Hendrick took two tires while everyone else took four. The time saved on pit road put them out front where a battle between Bowman and Larson came down to the final corner where Bowman held on for the win.

The disappointing loss got Busch riled up on his team radio as he said some unsavory things about Bowman and how he tends to “luck” his way into wins. This comes on the heels of fellow Joe Gibbs racer Denny Hamlin calling Bowman a “hack” last season when he spun Hamlin out to win at Martinsville. If you’re a Bowman fan, you can buy a t-shirt to commemorate either occasion on his website.

Stretching back to last season, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman have combined to win seven of the last eight races with the outlier being the Daytona 500 won by Austin Cindric. This is a streak that may continue into this week as teams wrap up the west coast swing in Phoenix. Phoenix is the location of the championship race, which Kyle Larson won last season.

Another key takeaway of mine regarding the Las Vegas race was the performance of the Toyota camp. After a new grille screen was approved by NASCAR this week to help alleviate overheating issues, the teams looked good. Even Bubba Wallace cracked the top-ten for a while late in the race before being involved in the Jones incident with three laps left. I was a bit cautious with the Toyota teams last week, but that can be ignored now. The teams look strong once again.

Another note before moving on to Phoenix, Aric Almirola finished top-ten once again, continuing his streak of top-ten finishes to start the season. He’s the only driver to finish in the top-ten in all three races so far this year. He was also in the perfect DraftKings lineup last week. His price is likely to shoot up soon, but I’d consider using him while he’s on a heater.

Moving on to Phoenix, this weekend’s race – The Ruoff Mortgage 500 – is a 500-kilometer (312 lap) race around the one-mile Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Arizona. Like Las Vegas, Phoenix is run twice per season – once in the spring and once in the fall – giving us six races worth of data over the past three seasons. The most recent winner at Phoenix is – of course – Kyle Larson who picked up a win in last season’s championship race. The past six Phoenix races have produced six different winners, so it’s hard to choose one driver as a particular favorite this weekend. Recent winners starting from most recent are Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. One notable name not on that list is Kevin Harvick. Despite not winning any of the last six Phoenix races, Harvick holds the record with nine victories at the track. Harvick swept both Phoenix races in 2006 and 2014 and earned single victories at the track in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2018. Harvick has struggled since his strong 2020 season where he won nine races, but he may be worth keeping an eye on this week.

Drivers I Like

Kyle Larson (DK price: $11,800)

Larson enters the week as the highest priced driver on DraftKings and for good reason. Not only has Larson been great lately, winning at Auto Club Speedway and finishing runner up at Las Vegas, he is also the most recent winner at Phoenix. Over the past three seasons Larson has competed in five Phoenix races and has never finished lower than seventh. His average finish of 4.40 over the past six Phoenix races is best among all active drivers. There may be other great options in the $10k and up bracket, but I firmly believe in Larson this weekend.

Kevin Harvick ($9,100)

Looking at Harvick’s stats listed above makes it plain to see my decision making here. Harvick’s nine career wins at Phoenix is a track record and a very impressive feat. Despite Harvick not finding victory lane in any of the last six Phoenix races, he still hasn’t carded a finish lower than ninth. He’s led 68 laps in that span and sports an average finish of 6.17. Harvick is incredibly consistent at Phoenix and I’m hoping he can continue that this weekend. Harvick’s 8.82 career average finish at Phoenix is best among active drivers and he is the only driver with an average career finish inside the top-10. He also leads active drivers with 1,663 career laps led at Phoenix and has finished top-10 in 27 of 38 starts at the track.

Christopher Bell ($8,300)

Bell turned his luck around a bit at Las Vegas last week. He ran fastest in qualifying, sitting on the pole for the first time in his young career. He came home with a top-10 finished and looked nearly as strong as Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. This week heading to a short track certainly bodes well for Bell. Over his career he’s been a short track ringer. Despite his lone Cup Series win coming on a road course format, Bell carded 12 of his 17 career Xfinity wins on tracks one mile or shorter. Phoenix isn’t Bell’s greatest track, though he has finished top-10 in two of four races at the track. His career average finish at the track is 14.75 with a best finish of ninth, but I’m trusting the fact he was fast last week to carry over to the short track.

Aric Almirola ($7,900)

I’m rolling with the hot hand this week and playing Almirola. With three straight top-10 finishes to open the season, we enter a track where Almirola sports an average finish of 10.67 over the past six races. Almirola’s lone victory last season came on a flat mile-long track in Louden, New Hampshire which correlates nicely with Phoenix. Almirola has run up front over the past six Phoenix races, having led 33 laps and collecting a top-five and three top-10’s. I’m surprised Almirola slots in at such a bargain this weekend and I’m going to take advantage.

Ty Dillon ($5,900)

The $6k and under range is a little slim this week, but Ty Dillon’s past performance at Phoenix stands out a bit. In his Cup Series career – which mainly took place in underfunded equipment – Dillon sports an average finish at Phoenix of 18.90 in 10 races. Of those 10 races, seven of them ended with top-20 finishes with a career-best finish of 11th. In his four most recent outings, Dillon’s best finish is 15th, and his worst is 24th. If anything, he provides a nice consistent floor this week and can be had for quite cheap.

Drivers I’m Avoiding

Chase Elliott ($10,700)

This is a tough fade because all the drivers in the $10k-plus range have a recent victory at Phoenix. In fact, all the drivers in this range have carded three top-five finishes in the past six races. Of all those drivers, Elliott sports the lowest average finish over the past six races, so let’s go there I guess. Elliott’s average finish over the last six races is 11.83. He has led 380 laps in those races, but some tough luck has led to a few bad finishes. Last season Elliott raced for a championship at Phoenix but finished last of all playoff contenders in fifth. He was actually outrun by non-playoff driver Ryan Blaney in the race. The Hendrick camp is fast, but Elliott’s last victory on an oval track came back in 2020 at this very track when he won a championship. Once again, a tough fade, but I’ve got to take a chance somewhere.

William Byron ($9,400)

Fading two Hendrick drivers when they’ve been so good lately is a risky proposition, but once again the $9k guys are good. Byron has yet to win at Phoenix and is the only driver in this range to never lead a lap at the track. Byron’s best finish at Phoenix is eighth and his average finish is 14.17. He may provide a solid floor, but I’m not sure his ceiling is all that high this week.

Tyler Reddick ($8,500)

Fading Reddick last week looked good at times, notably when he spun through the grass mid-way through the race. Reddick rebounded for a top-10 finish, but once again we hear to a track that doesn’t really fit his driving style. The flat turns of Phoenix have been trouble for the No.8 crew over his career. In four career Cup Series starts, Reddick has failed to finish higher than 19th. He did lead four laps in the season finale last year in what would be his lone finish on the lead lap at Phoenix. He is off to a good start to the season, but I feel as if Reddick could struggle this week.

Austin Dillon ($7,600)

I’m a full fade on Richard Childress Racing this week as I add Austin Dillon to the list of drivers I plan to avoid. In 16 career Phoenix races, Dillon sports an average finish outside the top-20 (20.81) and has never led a lap. In the past six Phoenix races, Dillon’s average finish is even worse than his career average and his highest finish is 15th. Dillon has never been strong at Phoenix and though RCR has looked good to start the season, I’m expecting struggles this week.

Daniel Suarez ($6,600)

I’ll take a week off from picking on poor Michael McDowell and shift my focus to Daniel Suarez who has not finished higher than 15th in any of the last six Phoenix races. In 10 career starts, Suarez sports an average finish outside the top-20 (20.10) and has never led a lap. In two races with Trackhouse racing last season, Suarez finished 21st in both the spring and fall races. Suarez is a full fade for me this week.

DraftKings Lineup

($50,000 budget, 6 driver lineup)

I was able to double my money in DraftKings this week, bringing home six units on a three-unit entry. I know I told everyone to fade Kyle Busch, but when he crashed in practice forcing him to start in the back with a backup car, I had to take a shot on him in DraftKings. Busch came home fourth in the race and collected a whopping 96.95 points by gaining 33 positions and leading 49 laps. All six of my drivers finished the race when plenty of quality drivers did not do that Sunday. Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, and others all crashed out and had rough days. We were able to avoid those land mines.

Last week: 296.85 pts.

1. Kyle Busch ($10,200): 96.95 pts.

2. William Byron ($9,800): 55.85 pts.

3. Kevin Harvick ($9,100): 44.90 pts.

4. Kurt Busch ($8,900): 49.45 pts.

5. Daniel Hemric ($5,800): 14.45 pts.

6. Ty Dillon ($5,600): 35.25 pts.

Remaining Budget: $600

Last week’s perfect lineup: 407.65 pts.

1. Kyle Busch ($10,200): 96.95 pts.

2. Ross Chastain ($7,500): 89.35 pts.

3. Alex Bowman ($8,700): 70.45 pts.

4. Martin Truex Jr. ($9,500): 56.00 pts.

5. Aric Almirola ($7,800): 52.00 pts.

6. Corey Lajoie ($5,100): 42.90 pts.

Remaining Budget: $1,200

Betting Card

Only one of my bets hit last week, but thankfully it was the big one. Daniel Hemric barely out-paced Bubba Wallace to earn a few units back, but in all we still dropped 3.5 units on the weekend. Brad Keselowski’s mid-race spin where he was t-boned by Ryan Blaney eliminated his chances at running top-10, while Truex Jr. was just barely outpaced by teammate Kyle Busch and Larson was barely outpaced by teammate Alex Bowman.

Joey Logano to win (+900, 2 units)

Alex Bowman to win (+2500, 1 unit)

All Joe Gibbs cars to finish Top-10 (+450, 0.5 unit)

Ryan Blaney over William Byron (-125, 2 units)

Denny Hamlin Top Toyota (+280, 1 unit)

Kurt Busch Group D winner (+260, 1 unit)

Kevin Harvick Top-10 (-165, 3.5 units)

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!

Last week

One of these weeks my pick isn’t going to get involved in an incident early in the race and find themselves being forced to battle back all race long. Last week Daniel Hemric had to fix cooling issues before the race causing him to have to start in the back of the field. Hemric was then involved in a lap-43 incident where he ran into the back of Kyle Busch, causing considerable damage to the nose of his Chevrolet. He couldn’t keep up with the rest of the field from there on out and came home 22nd.

This week: Ty Dillon

Ty hasn’t had as good of a start to the season as teammate Erik Jones. Jones finished third at Auto Club and was running top-10 at Las Vegas before blowing a tire with just three laps remaining. Dillon has however raced quite well at Phoenix over the course of his career. His 18.90 career average finishing position at the track is his third best among all tracks, trailing just Talladega and the Indianapolis oval (a track no longer on the schedule). Even in under-funded equipment throughout his career, Dillon has finished top-20 in seven of 10 career Phoenix races. Let’s hope he can card another one this weekend.


Race Driver Finish

Daytona 500 Greg Biffle 36th

Auto Club Kyle Busch 14th

Las Vegas Daniel Hemric 22nd

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