Denny Hamlin leads front-row sweep at Phoenix for Joe Gibbs Racing

AVONDALE, Ariz.—Denny Hamlin was convinced he had to improve his performance at Phoenix Raceway, and on Saturday afternoon, he took the first step in that direction.

Touring the one-mile track in 27.138 seconds (132.655 seconds) in the final round of qualifying, Hamlin put his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on the pole for Sunday’s Shriners Children’s 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Hamlin, who hasn’t won at Phoenix since 2019, beat JGR teammate Ty Gibbs (132.227 mph) by 0.088 seconds for the top starting spot in the fourth NASCAR Cup Series event of the season.

“I’m really trying to get better at this place,” Hamlin said after securing his first Busch Light Pole Award of the season, his third at Phoenix and the 41st of his career, 13th-most all-time.

“If we want to make a run at a championship—and you’ve got to win it through Phoenix—you’ve got to get better at Phoenix.”

The pole position was the 150th for Toyota in the Cup Series, with Hamlin accounting for 36 of those. His first five poles came in Chevrolets, before Joe Gibbs Racing switched to Toyota. Included in that group of five was Hamlin’s first career pole, at Phoenix in 2005.

Unlike the rest of his final-round competitors, who made sharp cuts across the frontstretch dogleg, Hamlin took a more conservative approach and benefitted from a more favorable angle into Turn 1 on his money lap.

“I was kind of 50-50 on it,” Hamlin explained. “I didn’t cut it in the first round, but we consistently saw that I was about a half-car-length behind entering Turn 1, but my angle was better.

“That was a very indecisive decision—‘OK, I won’t go all the way, but I won’t stay where I was,’ and it netted out in a good position where I was able to cut a little bit but also keep my angle into Turn 1.”

Chase Elliott (132.144 mph), winless since the fall Talladega race in 2022, qualified third in his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, followed by Toyota drivers Erik Jones and DAYTONA 500 winner William Byron.

Tyler Reddick was sixth fastest, ahead of Noah Gragson in the top Ford, Chase Briscoe, Michael McDowell and Sunoco rookie Carson Hocevar.

Hamlin’s pole-winning run broke a streak of three straight poles to open the season by Ford drivers.

Mixed reactions to new NASCAR Cup short-track competition package

During a 50-minute practice session on Friday afternoon at Phoenix Raceway, NASCAR Cup Series drivers tried to fine-tune the short-track competition package they will race for the first time in Sunday’s Shriners Children’s 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The practice produced a wide range of reactions across the spectrum of competitors.

Joey Logano enjoyed the experience, and not just because he topped the speed chart during the session.

“Our Hunt Brothers Pizza Ford Mustang is fast,” Logano said. “That always makes it fun. Definitely a lot of slipping and sliding as the tires fall off. This track has become more and more racey, and it’s widening out.

“The ‘old’ Phoenix from years and years ago is starting to come back. This package seems to be a little bit more in that direction, as there’s less downforce and a little bit more off-throttle time.”

Though Denny Hamlin brought a radically different setup from years past to a track where he has struggled in race trim, he felt the new package—which features a smaller, simplified diffuser, a reduced number of underbody strakes and a taller spoiler—was a step in the right direction.

“It is going to be a very, very small change,” said Hamlin, who was second fastest in the practice session. “But anything that can allow us to run closer together, cross each other’s wake without the air blocking we have seen over the last few weeks, that will be a good thing.

“And I certainly think that this package, (and) this (new Goodyear) tire is heading in the right direction. It’s not all the way there, but it’s certainly heading there.”

Martin Truex Jr. said the car didn’t feel different from the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota he drove last November. Chase Elliott had a similar opinion.

“I forgot they did anything until they started talking about it afterwards,” said the 2020 Cup champion, who was seventh on the speed chart in the fastest Chevrolet. “I don’t see it really changing a whole lot. I could be totally wrong, but I don’t think it’s going to change much.”

Kyle Busch’s pit crew woes bring shakeup to over-the-wall gang

Three races into the NASCAR Cup Series season, the performance of Kyle Busch’s pit crew hasn’t matched the two-time champion’s prowess on the track.

Following pit road mistakes that cost Busch dearly last Sunday at Las Vegas, Richard Childress Racing made wholesale changes to the over-the-wall crew on the No. 8 Chevrolet.

Shiloh Windsor replaces Michael Russell as front tire changer, Michael Johnson takes Chris Jackson’s spot as rear tire changer, and Doug Warwick replaces Garrett Crall as jack man. All three new crew members are full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, on the cars of Anthony Alfredo, Austin Hill and Parker Kligerman, respectively.

All three also will continue in their Xfinity Series roles. The tire changers will have to adapt to single-lug Cup cars from the Xfinity cars, which still use five lugs per wheel.

You can forgive Busch if he isn’t thoroughly familiar with the circumstances of the changes. Warwick will be the third jack man on the car in four races this season.

“I don’t have any idea of where guys are coming from, what their background is or what their experience is,” Busch said before Friday’s practice at Phoenix.

“I always just kind of assume that the Cup guys were the Xfinity guys, so news to me. We’ll find out how good they are come around 1:30 p.m. on Sunday.”

Last Sunday, Busch slid though his pit box as the tried to compensate for the pit crew’s performance. Because the crew serviced the car with the splitter barely over the line, he was penalized for pitting outside the box and relegated to a 26th-place finish.

Statistics point to scintillating racing to start 2024 season

In some cases, statistics can be deceptive—but not when it comes to the qualify of racing on display in the first three NASCAR Cup Series races of the season.

The average margin of victory so far is 0.222 seconds, fourth closest in that category since the advent of electronic timing and scoring in 1993 and just behind the series record of 0.136 seconds through three races in 2022.

Foremost among the close races was the Cup Series event at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where winner Daniel Suarez and runner-up Ryan Blaney were separated buy 0.003 seconds at the finish line.

It was the third closest finish in series history, and with third-place Kyle Busch just 0.007 seconds behind the winner, it also stands as the closest finish among three cars in the history of auto racing.

Other important milestones include a record 407 green-flag passes for the lead through three races (based on loop data that debuted in 2005), obliterating the previous mark of 302 set in 2022.

Overall, the young season has produced 23,027 green-flag passes, surpassing the mark of 21,245  set last year. A total of 28 different drivers have led races in 2024, the second largest number in the Modern Era (1972-2024). Only 2011 had more (32).

The average number of lead changes per race is 37.7, second in the Modern Era to 2011, which average 41.0 through three events.

The NASCAR Cup Series has produced three different point standings leaders in the first three races of the season for the first time since 2017.

The bottom line is that the first three races of 2024 have produced compelling racing, as increased fan interest and television ratings will attest.