Five Drivers to watch at ISM Raceway

Here are five drivers to watch as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to ISM Raceway for the TicketGuardian 500.

Kevin Harvick dominated the second race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, just like he did at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The only difference for Harvick this time around was that his No. 4 Ford was found in violation of NASCAR’s rules. Harvick’s win stands but he will lose the seven playoff points he earned during the race.

With two races down and both on intermediate tracks, we continued to learn more about the 2018 NASCAR season.

Now the focus turns to ISM Raceway, the new name for Phoenix Raceway. This will be the last time NASCAR visits ISM Raceway under the current configuration. The next time NASCAR visits, the penultimate race, the track will have a different layout.

Will we see the Fords continue to stomp the competition?  Will the Chevrolets find their stride? Can the Toyotas find their form from a season ago?

Here are five drivers to watch at ISM Raceway.

Kevin Harvick

Can Harvick keep the momentum going? After two dominating performances, Harvick and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford have put everyone on notice. Heading to ISM Raceway might feature the same. Harvick will roll off from the 10th starting position on Sunday.

Harvick has scored one win, three top-5 finishes and led 139 laps in the last four races at ISM Raceway. His team is leading the pack when it comes to Ford drivers this season and the impressive start is helping the rest of his teammates at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Harick’s Crew Chief Rodney Childers knows that a trip to Phoenix could end in another victory.

“Yeah, I mean, we definitely hit our stride at Phoenix early as far as the 4,” said Childers after Las Vegas. “I think our cars are better now than what they were last fall, and I think we can go out there and be competitive and hopefully have a shot at another win out there.”

Chase Elliott

Elliott has been the most consistent Hendrick Motorsports driver this season and is heading to a track where he’s also been the best HMS driver.

In four starts at ISM Raceway, Elliott has led 140 laps and scored one top-5 and three top-10 finishes.

The last time Elliott visited ISM Raceway, his race was remembered more for his payback to Denny Hamlin than it was for his on track performance.

Elliott has a real chance to right the ship at Hendrick Motorsports this weekend.

Elliott will start from the third position on Sunday.

Kyle Larson

Larson has had a quiet start to the 2018 season, a stark contrast to how he started 2017. Last season during the four race stretch from Atlanta to Auto Club Speedway, Larson finished inside the top-2 in all four races.

This season, Larson has started that four races stretch with a ninth and third place finish. Much like Blaney, Larson’s numbers at ISM Raceway are average. He’s scored two top-5 finishes in his last four starts and has led just 15 laps.

Why is this race important for Larson? He’s currently one of just two Chevrolet drivers inside the top-ten in the standings. There’s a total of four Chevy drivers inside the top-20.

Larson doesn’t seem too worried about the sluggish start and actually thinks his team is better than where they were a year ago. Rolling off from the second starting position on Sunday works towards that.

“I feel like at this point in the season, I feel like we’re probably actually a little bit better than we were last year,” said Larson after Las Vegas. “I say that, but Atlanta I felt like maybe we ran one or two spots worse than we did all day, and then here I felt like we ran probably three or four spots better than we did all day last year.”

Erik Jones during practice for the TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway. (World Copyright: Rusty Jarrett, NKP)

Erik Jones

ISM Raceway has been one of Jones’ best tracks during his short Cup Series career, posting an average finish of sixth.

There’s only one other track on the circuit, Pocono Raceway, where Jones has a better average finish. Both Phoenix and Pocono are unique tracks, combining flat and banked corners as well as different straightaway lengths.

Jones sits 19th in the standings, third amongst Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, and is coming off his first top-10 finish of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Jones will start from the ninth position on Sunday.

Ryan Blaney sits in the garage as his team works on his No. 12 Ford for the TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway. (World Copyright: Matthew T. Thacker, NKP)

Ryan Blaney

Entering 2018, Blaney switched from Wood Brother Racing to Team Penske. He’s made the transition look effortless. Through the first three races, Blaney sits second in total points behind his teammate Joey Logano.

Blaney’s history at ISM Raceway isn’t spectacular. With an average finish of 14.5 though his last four races in Phoenix, it makes weekend’s race a good opportunity to see how he stacks up against the rest of the competition.

Blaney has a good starting position on Sunday and will roll off from 12th.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattlovisa.