Sunday’s Ruoff Mortgage 500 at Phoenix Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) marks the NASCAR Cup Series Next Gen car’s one-mile competitive debut.
And three races into the season, the car – and the racing it’s produced – has received superlative reviews.
There have been three different race winners – Austin Cindric (Daytona), Kyle Larson (California) and Alex Bowman (Las Vegas) – and three different pole winners – Larson, Cindric and Christopher Bell. And the championship standings certainly reflect an intense parity.
Larson is the +350 favorite for Sunday’s race by BetMGM, where he has been backed by the second most outright winner money at 15.0 percent. However, it’s Bell who has been backed by the most total bets at 9.3 percent as his odds have shortened to +2500 after opening at +3300.
Not only do a mere 11 points separate the first five drivers in the series rankings, but the top-10 drivers in the standings are separated by 35 points or less.
Fittingly, last year’s two Phoenix race winners lead the title run. Martin Truex Jr., defending winner of this weekend’s Spring race, trails Phoenix’s Fall championship-deciding race winner Larson by a mere six points.
Two other former series champions, Joey Logano (-9) and Kyle Busch (-11) are also in the thick of the early title run – ranked third and fifth, respectively. Cindric (-10), who won the season-opening Daytona 500, is ranked fourth in the championship driver standings. And Aric Almirola is sixth in the title run, 16 points behind Larson and the only driver on the year with top-10 finishes in all three races.
Bubba Wallace (10th) and Erik Jones (15th) are right in the mix early on as well – names not typically atop the standings at this point of the season in previous years.
Denny Hamlin’s Slump
Conversely, Denny Hamlin – part of the Championship 4 Round in 2021 – has had a rough start to the season with two DNFs in three races — including last week at Las Vegas. He sits 30th in the standings, 75 points behind Larson.
Truex Jr. and Busch have the second-shortest odds at +700 at BetMGM, followed by Chase Elliott and Hamlin at +800.
Sunoco rookie Harrison Burton, a NASCAR Xfinity Series standout who is now driving the famed Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford, is also having a rough learning curve with two DNFs in the first three races. He’s 32nd in points.
“Everyone on the team is very confident,” Hamlin said. “We know what we’re capable of and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota are doing a great job giving us cars capable of running up front. It’s just a matter of getting to the finish without anything crazy happening and unfortunately, that has been easier said than done so far. At the end of the day, we just have to go out and execute and we’ll be fine.”
The one-mile Phoenix oval – which was massively remodeled and redesigned only three years ago – will be an important “next” test of the Next Gen car, which has produced ultra-competitive events at the Daytona 2.5-mile superspeedway, the 2-mile California oval and the 1.5-mile Las Vegas track.
And of course, there’s the extra motivation of figuring out the track that will play host to the Championship race in November.
Since the Phoenix track’s remodel, no driver has more than one win on it. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick has a record nine victories at Phoenix – three times the victories as anyone else in the field – but hasn’t won there since 2018.
Three-time winner Busch and two-time winners Logano and Hamlin are the only other multi-time Phoenix champs among active drivers.
Logano has been backed by 15.2 percent of the money at +900, making him the third-biggest liability for BetMGM behind Bell and Aric Almirola, who has moved from +4000 to +2500.
NASCAR Cup Series
- Next Race: Ruoff Mortgage 500
- The Place: Phoenix Raceway
- The Date: Sunday, March 13
- The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
- The Purse: $7,039,168
- TV: FOX, 3 p.m. ET
- Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
- Distance: 312 miles (312 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 60),
- Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 185), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 312)
- 2021 Race Winner: Martin Truex Jr.
–Field Level Media (@FieldLevelMedia). Information from NASCAR Wire contributed to this story