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Stock car racing's best are inching its way back eastward as springtime begins, but not before one last stop out west to cap off its annual west coast swing: This weekend, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Phoenix Raceway for the Ruoff Mortgage 500, the fourth race of the season and the first visit of the year to a track that has quickly become one of the most important on the schedule.

Since NASCAR first visited in 1988, the one-mile dogleg oval in Avondale, Arizona has never been more consequential than it has the last several years: Starting in 2020, Phoenix was made the site of NASCAR's Championship Race at the end of the season, making mastering the speedway's sweeping turns and relatively flat banking an absolute necessity for drivers and teams with championship ambitions. The track's spring race is a major checkpoint to that end, and a victory at Phoenix can serve as a resounding message about who will be in the Championship 4 at season's end.

How to watch the NASCAR Cup Series at Phoenix

Date: March 13
Location: Phoenix Raceway -- Avondale, Ariz.
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: Fox
Stream: fuboTV (try for free)

What to Watch

  • After the powerhouse team won 17 of 36 races last year, the start of 2022 has proven that Hendrick Motorsports has no intentions of letting the competition surpass them. Hendrick cars have won the last two races, first with Kyle Larson at Fontana and then last weekend with Alex Bowman at Las Vegas. That ties into the larger trend of Hendrick dominance, as the company has won seven of the last eight Cup Series races dating back to the Charlotte Roval last fall.

    Hendrick's recent stranglehold on Victory Lane is nothing new, given how the team has piled up trophies since the 1980s on their way to becoming the winningest team in NASCAR history. But what is different is the circumstances in which they've kept up their current streak: at Fontana, Kyle Larson had to withstand a late-race restart and several furious challenges from competitors, and ultimately had to take the lead back from Daniel Suarez with two laps to go. At Las Vegas, another Hendrick victory was only made possible by an overtime restart and a two-tire strategy that allowed Larson, Bowman, and William Byron to leapfrog two Joe Gibbs Racing cars at the front of the field.

    If a Hendrick three-peat is in the cards this weekend, two of their drivers likely hope that it's their turn to roll into Victory Lane: Chase Elliott has not won a race since last July at Road America, while it's been over a full year since Byron last won at Homestead.
  • One of the first major technical points of this weekend is that it will be the first true test of the impact of the Next Gen car's larger brakes: although the car's braking power was first displayed at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the much higher corner entry speeds seen at Phoenix will mark a major test of the Next Gen car's braking power.

    Thanks to the Next Gen car's bigger wheels, the car's larger brakes offer significantly more braking power than the previous generation of Cup car. That's especially important at a track like Phoenix, where braking and brake management is an important part of both going fast and making it to the finish.

    One notable detail to look out for is whether or not brake heat becomes an issue: in the past, Phoenix has seen numerous drivers suffer right front tire failures due to melted beads from excessive brake heat, and it's led to a number of ruined races and nasty impacts with the wall -- particularly on the exit of Turn 2.
  • Since Phoenix became the site of the finale in 2020, the track's spring race has ended up foreshadowing which drivers would return in November with a shot to win the Cup Series championship: Joey Logano won the spring race in 2020, and then returned in the fall as part of the Championship 4. Martin Truex Jr. did the same last year, and may very well have won the championship race had a late caution not given Kyle Larson the opportunity to pass him and take the win with a quick pit stop.

    Overall, Phoenix has been a racetrack that has favored drivers with championship pedigrees, which was the case even before it became a kingmaker for first-time champions Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. The last driver to win at Phoenix without a Cup Series title to their name was Ryan Newman in the spring of 2017.

Pick to Win

(Odds via Caesars Sportsbook)

Kevin Harvick (+1700): After winning nine races in 2020, Kevin Harvick found himself shut out of Victory Lane in 2021, going winless in a season for the first time since 2009. That winless season, though, was somewhat misleading. Harvick had a terrific statistical year in spite of his goose egg in the win column, ranking fifth in the final Cup Series standings.

This weekend at Phoenix presents the perfect antidote for Harvick's winless streak. Phoenix is by far his best racetrack, as it is the site of nine of his 58 career wins. Harvick finished sixth and eighth in both Phoenix races a season ago, making for a good baseline to affirm his title as Cactus King.