Last year, the spring Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway marked the end of normalcy as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sports world three days later.
Sunday’s Instacart 500 was a reminder of how far we have come in the past year with many fans in the grandstands at the track. Martin Truex Jr. returned to his winning ways, outdueling Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske to pick up his first win since June 2020.
Team Hendrick was dealt a tough hand at the start of the race as due to unapproved adjustments and failing pre-race inspection multiple times, Chase Elliott, the winner of the last race at Phoenix in the 2020 championship, William Byron, the winner at Homestead-Miami Speedway two weeks ago and Kyle Larson, who won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, all had to drop to the rear at the start of the race. To make matters worse, halfway through the first stage, the fourth Team Hendrick driver in Arizona native Alex Bowman, crashed into the wall, forcing him into an extensive pit stop.
While Team Hendrick has been dominant through the first four races of this season, it was Team Penske that came out strong with all four drivers running in the top 10 during the first stage and Matt DiBenedetto running around 10th place. After a slow stop from leader Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney battled for the lead with Blaney finishing out stage one at the front, winning his first stage win of 2021 and his first since winning stage two at the Charlotte Roval in 2020. Logano and Keselowski finished second and third in the first stage while DiBenedetto finished 10th. Team Hendrick rebounded to work their way toward the top as Elliott, Byron and Larson finished fourth, eighth and ninth.
Logano led over Blaney to begin stage two. Team Hendrick worked their way further up the leaderboard with Elliott running third and Larson passing Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin to get into fifth. With 69 laps to go in the second stage, Larson passed Elliott for third place with Logano and Blaney running first and second. A few laps later, Larson passed Blaney for second. As the green flag pit stops commenced, Larson was penalized as he entered pit road too quickly, forcing to once again pass through pit lane. Team Penske took advantage of the error as Logano and Blaney once again comprised the top two as stage 2 wound down.
As Larson attempted to work his way back into the top 10 while restarting 24th, Truex and Hamlin worked their way in the top-five. Logano won stage two over Truex and Hamlin, picking up his fourth stage win of the year and allowing Penske to sweep the first two stages of the race. During the pit stops, Hendrick’s woes continued as Elliott picked up a speeding penalty on pit road.
The Penske drivers held the advantage heading into stage 3 but with 89 laps left in the race. Truex passes Logano for the lead, allowing Joe Gibbs Racing to intervene in the battle between Penske and Hendrick. With 85 laps in the race, Larson pushed his way into fifth as he was consistently running several tenths faster than the leader. With 66 laps to go, JGR controlled the race as Truex and Hamlin ran first and second with Bubba Wallace working his way up to seventh place.
As green-flag pit stops commenced, Larson worked his way back up to second place before a caution with 51 laps left. Logano used the caution to work his way back to the front alongside Wallace after winning the race off pit road. Through multiple cautions and further pit stops, Truex and Logano shuffled their way up to the top two and exchanged the lead before Truex restarted in the lead with 25 laps left in the race.
While Team Hendrick and Team Penske battled for most of the race, it was a JGR driver in Truex picking up the victory, his first win in the Cup Series since winning at Martinsville last June. This was also his first career win at Phoenix in the Cup Series. With Bell winning the Daytona Road Course, JGR and Hendrick each have two drivers locked into the playoffs.
Logano led the most laps with 143 and finished second, the second time this season he has finished second in a race in 2021 with the other being the Daytona Road Course. Keselowski and Blaney finished fourth and 10th. Hendrick suffered adversity all race long but still managed to nab three top-10 spots with Elliott finishing fifth, Larson finishing seventh and Byron picking up an eighth-place finish. Hamlin finished third and Bell finished ninth for JGR, winning the stacked team battle in the leaderboard. Kevin Harvick finished sixth, becoming the only driver outside the big three teams to finish in the top 10.
The NASCAR Cup Series heads to Hampton, Georgia for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway next Sunday.