Three storylines to watch at NASCAR’s Shriners Childrens 500 at Phoenix Raceway

Ryan Blaney, the reigning Cup Series champion, says while he has fond memories of winning the championship here last year, he’s approaching the race in Phoenix as if it were any other race. (Photo by David Bernauer/Cronkite News)

AVONDALE – Phoenix Raceway will almost assuredly hold a special place in Ryan Blaney’s heart. After all, it was the site of his first Cup Series championship just a few months ago in 2023. Confetti blasted, champagne spilled and ear-to-ear smiles were abound. While the fond memories of his championship are fresh, the beginning of a new season demands renewed focus on a title defense.

“It’s just another race in a new year,” Blaney said about returning to Phoenix.

Although it’s just another race in his eyes, it’s one of three storylines to watch Sunday in the Shriners Childrens 500 at Phoenix Raceway.

Blaney’s back

While he may be the reigning champion, Blaney is still searching for an elusive first win in Phoenix. He has finished second in the last three races here to Ross Chastain, this year’s Daytona 500 champion William Byron in 2023 and his Penske teammate Joey Logano in 2022. In addition, he’s finished in the top 10 of every race here since 2021. Whether Blaney is able to take home a victory this time or not, Blaney says he and his team are excited about racing here.

“For whatever reason, I’ve always enjoyed this place and it fits whatever we do,” Blaney said. “It’s worked with how we prepare our race cars, our mindset on setups. As a driver, I like it, so hopefully that continues and we can be as strong as we’ve been here the last couple of years.”

Short track package change

Short track racing was once the crème de la crème of the NASCAR schedule, but once the Next Gen Car was introduced at the start of the 2022 season, short track races such as Phoenix have become more like the bottom of the barrel when it comes to competitive racing. Drivers haven’t enjoyed it, and fans certainly haven’t either.

In the offseason, NASCAR worked on a new short track package for cars. Changes to the package included: a smaller diffuser underneath the car with the vertical strakes closer together and the spoiler height increased from two to three inches to redistribute where downforce is created, and a new tire design from Goodyear to induce faster tire falloff to race loose better without spinning out. After one practice session, opinions on the new package are mixed.

“It felt fine. I mean, I could slide the car around a little bit more,” Hendrick Chevrolet driver Byron said. “I felt like (the tire) falloff seemed pretty quick. Unless I was on a two, three lap tire advantage or disadvantage, there’s comers and goers with that. But equal tires, I didn’t pass anyone.”

Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet driver Daniel Suárez said, “The first (part of practice) it fired off pretty good, and then I got in traffic right away. It was like a light switch, super bad right away. My second round, I was in fairly clean air the entire time, and I fired out very good and then (my lap time) fell off six-, seven-tenths of a second which is a pretty good amount.”

Other drivers could not tell much of a difference between the new and old packages.

“I couldn’t, no,” Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver and 23XI team owner Denny Hamlin said. “I think that some of the changes it’s supposed to be better. I think it’s really just not supposed to be worse than what we had before.”

Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. concurred.

Martin Truex Jr. was blunt with his opinion on NASCAR’s new short track package it introduced. “Terrible,” he said.

“Terrible (in traffic). No change,” Truex said. “It’s basically exactly the same. I felt like I was in the car I left here in the fall with.”

Drivers expressed optimism that with more cars together on the track Sunday, there could be a noticeable improvement in how the car races. For now, it appears NASCAR and Goodyear have more work to do.

Noah Gragson’s hot start

To say Noah Gragson’s rookie year was disappointing would be an understatement. The highly regarded prospect failed to register a top-10 finish in any race, finished on the lead lap only four times, had an average finish of 28.2 and was ultimately dropped by Legacy Motor Club after 21 races due to a combination of poor performance and liking an insensitive meme on Instagram.

Looking at the standings, it would be easy to assume 2024 is more of the same through three races. While he may sit 34th in championship points, his season has gone much better than a first glance might tell you, especially after he was docked 35 points for roof air deflectors which did not meet regulation. Gragson has two top-10 finishes in three races this season, a ninth place finish in the Daytona 500 leading five laps, and a sixth place finish at his home track of Las Vegas last week.

“There’s no quit in this team, we’re really together right now,” Gragson told NASCAR on Fox following his finish at Las Vegas. “More top-10’s this year than I’ve had in my whole career. We’re going to keep working and clean a lot more stuff up.”

In each of those races he showcased the speed to pilot his number 10 Ford toward the top of the field. For Gragson and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, it will be about finding the consistency to keep Gragson up front. Gragson won the 2022 XFinity Series spring race at Phoenix, and he’ll look to recreate that magic two years later for his first Cup Series victory.

Extra tidbits

2021 Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell grew up in Phoenix and will be attempting his 27th Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway. In the fall, McDowell scored his first ever top-10 at his home track.

“Every weekend is important, but it’s nice when you run good in front of your hometown,” McDowell said. “This hasn’t been a strong track for me in the past, but I feel like we turned a corner last year. We were able to get a top-10 here, and for us, that was a big day because it’s been a track that we’ve struggled at. It’s fun, it’s good to have a strong day.”

Isabella Robusto, who made her ARCA series debut for Venturini Motorsports on Friday night and is pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at ASU, finished a rain-and-lightning shortened race in sixth place.

“The car was definitely way better on the long runs and we saw that in the first half,” Robusto told NBC’s Heather DeBeaux after the race. “I think I have a lot I need to go back and watch and learn from this (first race).”

David Bernauer DAY-vid BER-now-er (he/his/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

David Bernauer expects to graduate in May 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Bernauer has previously worked in the Phoenix Sports Bureau and TV Production & Graphics Lab, as well as interning with the Florida Collegiate Summer League. He is a contributing writer with The Sixth Man Show.