Counting the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, the NASCAR Cup Series is batting four-for-four so far this season in terms of excitement and intrigue. But more than just keeping the string of great races alive, the Ruoff Mortgage 500k represents an opportunity for drivers and teams to build a notebook with the Next Gen car for the most important race of the 2022 season.
The championship deciding race is, of course, held at Phoenix Raceway. No doubt, the evolution of this car will be much further along by the time the Cup Series returns to Arizona in November. Still, what will be learned on Sunday afternoon will play a role in determining setups and race strategy on the day the Championship 4 combatants take to the track to decide the title.
With three points-paying races and the practice sessions that have gone with them now in the books, crew chiefs and engineers have begun to get a better feel for this machine. Drivers are gaining more of an understanding of how the car reacts in various situations. There is much more to be learned and it will be in the coming weeks and months but understanding is being increased weekly.
But for this week, the racing so far has shown a certain degree of unpredictability. While powerhouse teams Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske have won this season’s races, a wide variety of drivers from a wide variety of teams have led laps and shown that they have the ability to win. That trend could continue on Sunday, but the chances for such difficulty to foresee may be diminished in this race.
There is a key difference from the previous three contests going into this affair. Races so far have been held on the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway, and the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This somewhat uniquely shaped 1-mile facility’s may not behave as the other aero-dependent venues have.
Based on the practice and qualifying sessions held on Saturday, the top teams appeared to be the strongest. For that reason, it would seem, for this week at least, that a more expected race could be in order.
Predicted Winner: As stated above, this race may play out more predictably than the others. For that reason, I believe one of the drivers from a major team will win in Phoenix. I predict that Denny Hamlin will win the Ruoff Mortgage 500k.
TV and Start Time: The Ruoff Mortgage 500k will be shown live by Fox with the green set to wave at 3:47ET.
Stage breaks on lap 60 and lap 125. Total race distance in 312 laps.
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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
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