Bluegreen Vacations 500 Preview: Prelude to the Championship
Bluegreen Vacations 500 Preview: Prelude to the Championship

This article is part of our DraftKings NASCAR series.

As the season draws to a close, the Chase for the Monster Energy Cup brings us to Phoenix, Arizona and ISM Raceway for the prelude to the championship finale.  This race marks the cut from the Round of 8 of the Chase to the four-driver Championship round at Homestead.  We make a big departure from the 1.5-mile intermediate ovals and come to one of the few flat tracks on the circuit.  ISM is an irregular "D-shaped" oval with very flat banking in the corners of nine to 11 degrees.  The straights are completely flat, and very fast as they carry off into the sweeping corners.  It is truly a unique facility among those on the Monster Energy Cup circuit, and very fitting that it plays a key role in the Chase for the Monster Energy Cup championship.  The Phoenix oval underwent many configuration changes last season.  So the last two races at the facility have been with the new configuration.  We'll focus in very closely on those two events when looking at our driver prognostications this week.

Since ISM Raceway is so unique, we have a driver set for this race that is unique as well.Certain drivers thrive on the flat oval in the Arizona desert, while some others would rather be just about anywhere else this weekend but Phoenix.  However, one theme will be quite clear.  Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott will be driving over each other in an attempt to secure the final spot in the championship round of the Chase.As a quick glance at the standings shows us, the Monster Energy Cup championship is still up for grabs coming into the Bluegreen Vacations 500.  With the wrecks, pit road penalties and other mayhem of Texas still fresh in our memory, all eyes will be on the Arizona desert this weekend.  As pressure to advance in the Chase builds, we could see some major fireworks on the race track this Sunday afternoon.

For the first time since March, we're racing at ISM Raceway.  It was almost eight months ago that the Monster Energy Cup Series ran in the mid-afternoon in the Arizona desert.  Even though it has been a long time since drivers made laps at Phoenix, we can still look at the results from the Ticket Guardian 500 for indicators for this weekend.  Not only that race, but we'll factor in the last 14 seasons at the Phoenix oval for some ideas of who will run up front this weekend.  Current hot streaks will play a part as well in evaluating this weekend's race, but historical stats at this facility are a very valuable tool.  Here are the loop stats for the last 29 races at ISM Raceway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kevin Harvick8.16738711,5957,506110.8
Jimmie Johnson10.57367129097,280106.3
Chase Elliott10.11931791561,989104.1
Kyle Busch11.18115601,1217,398103.9
Denny Hamlin11.36353486786,38297.1
Kurt Busch13.96644185806,37195.2
Brad Keselowski13.84753321634,31093.0
Kyle Larson13.524095692,19391.5
Ryan Blaney15.9152361081,64889.2
Joey Logano15.24221632964,38989.0
Martin Truex Jr.15.95852561125,60488.0
Ryan Newman16.07981611285,89786.1
Erik Jones14.314336111,32585.2
William Byron15.069151554778.4
Clint Bowyer18.7524140224,22877.3
Aric Almirola14.928232262,11976.1
Austin Dillon20.31551101,51072.4
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.19.816821088467.5
Paul Menard21.82752401,96065.9
Daniel Suarez18.4617038265.5

If anyone hopes to pull a surprise upset in the quest for the championship, Phoenix will play a big part.  One driver has won an amazing nine times at the desert short track, and that would be the driver of the Stewart Haas Racing No. 4 Ford.  Kevin Harvick has dominated this Arizona oval for years.  However, he's already locked into the championship round of the Chase thanks to his big win at Texas this past week.  There will be a handful of drivers vying for victory lane and that automatic berth at Homestead next week.  Before we hand the Phoenix trophy to Harvick, let's not rule out Chase Elliott just yet.  His back is to the wall and potentially facing Chase elimination at PIR unless he can pull the big upset victory.  That will be a powerful motivator for the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 team.  While Elliott has never won at Phoenix, he's been strong in most all of his starts at the Desert Jewel.  He has nabbed a pair of Top-3 finishes in his last four attempts at ISM Raceway.  These drivers will be joined by short track specialists Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney in racing for the checkers this weekend.  All four are still alive in the Chase, and all four are looking to advance to Homestead with a Phoenix victory or enough points to crack the Top-4 in the standings.  One thing is for certain, when the green flag drops at ISM Raceway this Sunday afternoon the fireworks will fly as these drivers compete for the big stakes at the desert oval.  We'll examine those championship contending teams who have a lot to race for this weekend at the Phoenix short track and those who could sneak up and surprise the playoff teams.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick Harvick locked up a berth in the Championship 4 with his win at Texas this past week.  A good bit of the pressure is now off, but he'd certainly like to ride the momentum of the win into Arizona and make it a two-race win streak going into the season finale at Homestead.  Harvick has been the dominant force at this oval since the 2012 season and has the seven victories since then to prove it.  The Stewart Haas Racing star has a strong career resume at this Arizona short track.  He has over 1,500 laps led at this facility and nine total victories.  Harvick carries a staggering 12-race Phoenix Top-10 streak into Sunday's Bluegreen Vacations 500.  That makes him the most dominant and consistent driver at this oval for the past eight years. 

Kyle Busch Busch's career resume at ISM Raceway was once a mixed bag, but it has completely turned around in the past couple seasons.  He has won the last two Phoenix races, and that brings his career total to three wins at ISM.  In addition, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has five Top-3 finishes in his last six starts at the oval.  That illustrates his recent excellence at this flat short track.  Considering that Busch comes to Arizona third in the Chase standings this weekend, he'll be looking to make a statement performance and set the tone for the one-race, winner-take-all championship at Homestead.  Busch's upside is pretty tremendous and balanced with a career 36-percent Top-5 rate at this facility.  A win, and the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team is locked into the Championship 4 at Homestead.

Chase Elliott Elliott has had terrible luck the last two races, and sits a distant eighth in the Chase standings.  The young driver still has one last shot to toss the Hail Mary pass for the victory this weekend and advance to the final round of the Chase.  His seven prior Cup starts at Phoenix have netted a pair of Top-3 and four Top-10 finishes.  Elliott has had good speed in his last two starts at ISM Raceway with the outside pole position in each, but the commensurate finishes haven't followed in those two events.  Now in a win or go home scenario, we expect the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team to dig deep this weekend.  Elliott's Chevy Camaro will surely be fast, and it will all be on the young driver's shoulders whether he advances in the playoffs or not.          

Denny Hamlin The Joe Gibbs Racing star heads to Phoenix looking to recover from a tough luck Texas outing, and keep his slim playoff hopes alive.  This week he visits one of his better ovals in ISM Raceway.  Hamlin has great stats at this oval that are worth considering.  He has two pole positions, one victory and 16 Top-10 finishes in his Phoenix resume.  That works out to a strong 57-percent Top-10 rate.  With an impressive average finish of 11.3 at this D-shaped oval, it's clear that the JGR driver likes racing at this tough short track.  Hamlin's been strong in recent Phoenix outings with over 200 laps led and two Top-5 finishes in his last four attempts.  A great performance for Hamlin coupled with some tough luck for Joey Logano or Kyle Busch, and Hamlin could sneak into the back door of the Championship 4.

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Martin Truex Jr. The No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team is locked into the championship finale at Homestead.  Truex will use this start at ISM Raceway as a tune up for the season's final race.  The veteran driver has only 10 Top-10 finishes in his 27-career starts at Phoenix as this is not one of his more successful ovals.  However, outings the last three seasons have gone up in a big way.  Truex has claimed one pole position, and three Top-5 finishes in his last four starts at ISM Raceway.  That includes his brilliant runner-up finish here in March's Ticket Guardian 500.  The start earlier this season was Truex's career-best effort at the Phoenix oval.  We should see another sharp outing by this driver and team this Sunday.   

Joey Logano The Penske Racing star is thick in the battle to maintain his status in the playoffs coming to Phoenix this week.  He just simply needs to hold serve and log another Top 10, and he'll be safely into the championship round the following week.  Logano has one pole position, 296 laps led and 10 Top-10 finishes in 21 starts at ISM Raceway.  He has solid stats at this facility, but it's clear that ISM is not one of his better short tracks.  Logano will have the pressure of locking into the Chase finale boosting his motivation, and we need look no further than his outing at Phoenix in March for potential.  The driver of the No. 22 Ford started 12th that afternoon in March and worked hard to earn a 10th-place finish in the Ticket Guardian 500.  The defending series champion should be even more focused in this Phoenix start. 

Ryan Blaney Coming off Top-10 finishes at Martinsville and Texas the last two weeks, Blaney is still alive in the playoffs.  Phoenix offers another opportunity for the No. 12 Penske Racing team to crack the Top 10 and potentially advance to Homestead in the championship round.  Blaney has seven-career starts at ISM Raceway with three Top-10 finishes to his credit.  That bodes well going into the Bluegreen Vacations 500.  The young driver has improved tremendously on short tracks during the 2019 season.  Blaney's start at ISM Raceway in March is a good example of this fact.  He won the pole position, led 94 laps and finished third in that last Phoenix outing.  That was his career-best effort at the Arizona oval.  Blaney has been razor sharp the last few weeks, and he should be up for the challenge in the Bluegreen Vacations 500.  

Brad Keselowski The No. 2 Penske Racing Ford team comes to Phoenix looking to sharpen their performance and prepare for the 2020 season.  While a victory is not likely, a good performance should be very much in the cards.  Keselowski has Top-10 finishes in nine of 20 starts at the Arizona short track.  While that's a pedestrian 45-percent, recent short track outings for this driver and team are a good indicator of potential for Sunday's 312-lap battle at ISM Raceway.  A fourth-place finish recently at the Richmond oval, and a third-place finish a couple weeks ago at the Martinsville short track bode well for Sunday's race at ISM.  Keselowski may be out of the Chase for the Cup playoffs, but he should race among the championship contending teams this weekend.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Phoenix & solid upside

Kyle Larson Larson's 2019 season comes down to Phoenix this weekend.  His playoff fate isn't entirely in his hands, but the Chip Ganassi Racing star should put out his best performance and hope for some luck to advance.  Larson's career record at ISM Raceway is a mixed bag, but recent performances have been very encouraging.  Four of his last six starts at the Phoenix flat track have netted Top-10 finishes.  The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet finished third in this event one year ago, and he returned this spring and logged an impressive sixth-place finish in the Ticket Guardian 500.  Larson turned in a surprising Top-10 finish at Martinsville a couple weeks ago, so he's up for this challenge at the Phoenix short track. 

William Byron The Hendrick Motorsports youngster nabbed his first-career Phoenix Top-10 finish at the Desert Jewel in this event one year ago.  Byron piloted the No. 24 Chevrolet to a ninth-place finish that November afternoon.  He has improved incredibly since that race, and should show what he's learned over the last year in Sunday's Bluegreen Vacations 500.  Byron has a pair of Top-5 finishes in his last three starts, and one of those was a strong runner-up finish at the similar flat short track in Martinsville.  This driver and team are rounding out the season strong, and ISM Raceway gives Byron another opportunity to outperform and impress.  He has a very high ceiling for Sunday's 312-lap battle at the Arizona short track. 

Kurt Busch No matter what happens Sunday afternoon, Busch has had a good season.  The move to Chip Ganassi Racing has been a success.  Despite not advancing deep into the Chase, Busch has posted good results in 2019.  ISM Raceway should present him with another opportunity to post a Top 10 before the season ends.  Busch has solid career numbers at this small oval.  33-career starts have yielded 19 Top-10 finishes, 809 laps led and one victory.  He's had his fair share of success at the Arizona flat track.  In his start at ISM Raceway earlier this season, Busch peddled hard to nab a seventh-place finish in the Ticket Guardian 500.  That lifted his career Top-10 average at Phoenix to 58-percent, and lowered his career average finish there to 14.0.  We expect the No. 1 Chevrolet team to race up front this Sunday afternoon.

Erik Jones After a strong 10th-place finish at Texas, Jones is pointed back in the right direction coming to Phoenix.  The news gets better for the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team.  Jones has been spot on in all of his outings at the Desert Jewel.  Three of his six-career starts at the track have netted Top-10 finishes.  His average finish sits at a very respectable 14.3.  His start here in March of this season was a forgettable performance, but Jones should rebound nicely in Sunday's Bluegreen Vacations 500.  This young driver is turning things around right now, and Jones is making a very timely visit to ISM Raceway.  We expect him to hammer out another Top-10 finish in Sunday's race on the newly-configured Phoenix short track. 

Aric Almirola Almirola is a man on a mission this weekend.  The No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing team went for broke to win at Texas this past week and turned in a great performance.  Almirola led 62 laps and finished runner-up in the AAA Texas 500.  It broke a long dry spell for this driver and team.  While a Phoenix win would be a long shot for Almirola, we should see another great effort in an attempt to finish this season strong.  The veteran driver of the No. 10 Ford has had limited success at ISM Raceway over his career, but he started to turn the corner here a couple seasons ago.  Almirola rides a four-race Phoenix Top-10 streak into this weekend's action.  The last of those was a career-best Phoenix finish of fourth that came in March of this year.  We believe he can challenge that mark again Sunday in the Bluegreen Vacations 500.

Ryan NewmanNewman has been pretty consistent throughout this season's Chase.  His short track performances have been among the best of those efforts.  In addition, he's coming off a Top-10 finish in our last short track race at Martinsville Speedway a couple weeks ago.  The Roush Fenway Racing driver boasts four-career poles and two-career victories at ISM Raceway.  In 34-career starts Newman has nabbed 12 Top-10 finishes.  He rides a three race Top-15 streak at ISM Raceway into this weekend's action.  Newman finished a respectable 12th in March's Ticket Guardian 500.  That's a good mark to shoot for this weekend for the veteran RFR driver.

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Jimmie Johnson After a run-in with the wall and disappointing 34th-place finish at Texas this past weekend, Johnson comes to Phoenix on a tough-luck run of late.  Three of his last four starts have resulted in DNF's with finishes outside the Top 30.  That's an unsettling statistic heading into ISM Raceway this weekend.  The Hendrick Motorsports star has enjoyed a lot of success at the Phoenix oval over the years.  Johnson is a four-time winner at ISM, and he has a staggering 21 Top-10 finishes in 32-career starts (66-percent).  The Hendrick Motorsports star has had his issues of late, thus the slow down ranking this week.  Johnson's last four Phoenix starts have yielded only one Top-10 finish.   

Alex Bowman Bowman has been razor sharp on the intermediate ovals of late, but the short tracks have been another story all together.  His 30th-place finish at Martinsville a couple weeks ago is a good illustration of this fact.  Bowman has four-career starts at this Phoenix oval with the No. 88 Chevrolet team, and they've only yielded one Top-10 finish.  His last two starts at ISM Raceway have resulted in crashes and DNF's.  That includes his 35th-place finish in March's Ticket Guardian 500.  2019 has been this driver and team's season on intermediate ovals, but the short tracks have been a very poor affair.  Bowman is a good bench candidate this Sunday in all fantasy racing formats.   

Clint Bowyer Bowyer has been his own worst enemy at times this season.  We saw that at Martinsville a couple weeks ago, and we saw it again at Texas this past week despite Bowyer recovering before that race ended.  ISM Raceway has been a very tough oval for this veteran driver over the years.  Although Bowyer finished 11th-place here in March, Phoenix has been a problematic oval most of his career.  With only seven Top 10's in 28 starts (25-percent) ISM Raceway has been a real challenge for the SHR veteran driver.  A finish in the middle or upper teens this weekend could be about the best Bowyer could muster, and the low-end potential is far worse.                           

Michael McDowell The Front Row Motorsports driver has been quite useful this season in deep weekly lineup leagues.  His Top-5 finish recently at Talladega is a good example of this, and his 12th-place finish at the Charlotte Roval have proven his utility.  However, McDowell is coming to a track that has challenged him tremendously in his Monster Energy Cup Series career.  He has 17-career starts at ISM Raceway, and those have netted just one Top-20 finish.  Recent races have yielded two finishes outside the Top 30 in the last three starts.  The career average finish at ISM stands at a lofty 33.3.  McDowell just doesn't perform at this Arizona short track.  It's best to dismiss any thoughts of fantasy racing deployment in the Bluegreen Vacations 500.

The author(s) of this article may play in daily fantasy contests including – but not limited to – games that they have provided recommendations or advice on in this article. In the course of playing in these games using their personal accounts, it's possible that they will use players in their lineups or other strategies that differ from the recommendations they have provided above. The recommendations in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of RotoWire.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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