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2018 TicketGuardian 500 Preview

Race: TicketGuardian 500
Date: Sunday March 11, 2018
Track: ISM Raceway
Time: 3:30 pm ET
TV: FOX

by Virginia Vroom, NASCAR Handicapper, Predictem.com

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It looks like Kevin Harvick is trying to take Jimmie Johnsonís spot of domination this year. After his win at Atlanta, Harvick showed in dominating fashion that he is nothing to sneeze at this year. Harvick led the most laps out of any winner ever at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, leading a total of 214 of the 267 laps. Kevin Harvick certainly didnít go out without any troubles. He lost three positions at the end of stage 2, forcing him to restart in 4th position. It seemed like in this race, gaining and changing positions was one of the hardest things. Track position was absolutely key, with guys barely able to catch each other once the field started pulling away.

Second place Kyle Busch was 2.906 seconds behind Harvick. If that wasnít shocking enough, Kyle Larson was 13 seconds behind Harvick. In fact, there were only 9 cars on the lead lap by the end of the race. Paul Menard was the last driver on the lead lap. Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top five, with Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Paul Menard, and Aric Almirola finished out the top ten. It was funny listening to the interviews after the race. Even Kyle Busch, who typically doesnít take kindly to second place, had to laugh at the domination of Kevin Harvick. He realized that team was ďthe class of the fieldĒ and there was no catching them. Itís always a matter of track position here at Vegas, and Kevin Harvick made that abundantly clear.

This weekend, we are headed to one of my personal favorite tracks of the circuit. Phoenix, now known as ISM, is such a great track, and although another intermediate track, it has quite a bit of character that provides a lot of racing throughout the afternoon. At just 1.00-miles, Phoenix barely qualifies as an intermediate and is certainly not the cookie cutter tracks like Las Vegas or Charlotte. Itís a D-shaped tri-oval with minimal banking as compared to the other tracks. Turns 1, 2, and the dogleg boast 10-11 degree banking. Turn 3 comes in at 8 degrees, and turn 4 is between 8-9 degrees. The backstretch is 8-10 degrees with the frontstretch having very minimal banking at 3 degrees. With that type of configuration, you can only imagine that equipment is definitely harder to maintain on this track versus the other intermediate tracks. When it comes down to it, braking and tires are a huge component to this race. The drivers will not pull away from the rest of the field like they did at Las Vegas, and there will be more challenges with lap traffic here, especially going into the turns.

When it comes to the winner here, can we be honest? Kevin Harvick will dominate if he comes anywhere close to putting on a performance like he has in the last two weeks. His record at Phoenix is impeccable. Heís won 6 of the last 12 races here. His worst finish at the track is actually thirteenth. Thatís ridiculously impressive in and of itself. There is going to be a lot of competition, mainly in the form of Kyle Busch if I had to guess. Heís also got a good record here and was the only driver really capable of making Harvick think there was competition last weekend. Letís take a look at your potential winners heading into this weekend:

My Pick to Win: Kevin Harvick
Middle of the Road Pick: Ryan Newman
Dark Horse Prediction: Erik Jones

Erik Jones is coming off a top 10 finish at Vegas and really has shown a lot of potential over these last few weeks. With only 3 starts in Phoenix, he has two top 10 finishes in his last two races here. Being this is his first year at Gibbs, this guy will hopefully be making strides in the right direction. Ryan Newman is the defending winner of this race and typically performs at his peak levels at this track. Heís got 2 overall wins here and top 10 finishes in 9 of his 16 races here. Thatís not too shabby. Knowing that heís got only a handful of wins in the series, he seems to have figured out something here in Phoenix. Iíd expect these guys to get some runs from the norms like Martin Truex Jr. and also the Penske drivers, but Iím very confident in Kevin Harvickís ability to shut the door this weekend. The points are shifting a bit after his dominating performance, moving Harvick to the top of the leaderboard. Itíll be interesting to see how things play out after Phoenix.

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Here are your current top 16 after last week's race:

1. Kevin Harvick
2. Joey Logano
3. Ryan Blaney
4. Martin Truex Jr.
5. Kyle Busch
6. Kyle Larson
7. Brad Keselowski
8. Denny Hamlin
9. Paul Menard
10. Austin Dillon
11. Clint Bowyer
12. Aric Almirola
13. Kurt Busch
14. Ryan Newman
15. Darrell Wallce Jr.
16. Chris Buescher

With only 3 races completed so far this year, itís hard to say that these points are an accurate representation of the teams, but itís clear Harvick is right where he should be. Iíd expect a little more switching up at this weekend. I think that there will be some harder racing as well, with some of the veteran drivers coming back into focus. Jimmie Johnson should be one of those guys, who has an impeccable career at this place and has the best driver rating out of any active driver. Stay tuned for the blue walls of Phoenix and whatís sure to be a great day of racing this Sunday at ISM Raceway!

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