Phoenix Update: Split strategies shuffle order at halfway

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A series of yellow-flag stops near the halfway point of the Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway has jumbled up the order, with Jeff Gordon now leading the way after choosing not to pit and staying out on track.

The opening lap of the race was a chaotic one for pole sitter Jimmie Johnson, who found himself fighting three-wide for the lead going down the backstretch and then lost more spots after contact with Joey Logano briefly got him sideways. Johnson kept it going, but fell all the way back to sixth by the end of Lap 1.

With Johnson out of the way for the time being, Hamlin settled into the lead for a brief period before Jeff Gordon came up to challenge him for the lead at Lap 12. The two battled for multiple laps before Hamlin cleared Gordon to retain the lead at Lap 16. But four laps later, Gordon finally assumed the point, beating Hamlin down the backstretch into Turn 3.

Gordon would lead the way for the rest of that green flag stint, while Hamlin proceeded to tumble all the way into the 20th-25th place range before spinning in Turn 2 at Lap 50 to bring out the yellow.

On the subsequent pit stops, the Top 10 all took two tires and Gordon was able to keep his lead by winning the race off pit road. But off the restart at Lap 56, Harvick powered past Gordon on the outside to take P1. Meanwhile, Johnson continued to recover from his Lap 1 scare as he rose up to second behind Harvick during the second green run of the day.

However, Matt Kenseth (who trails Johnson by seven points for first in the championship) had yet to make an impact thanks to an ill-handling car. He started 14th, but had only been able to move up a few positions to 12th before the caution came out at Lap 100.

Harvick opted for four tires during pit stops under that yellow, causing him to fall from the lead to seventh. The top four off pit road – Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, and Paul Menard – all took two tires. Johnson and Gordon wound up fifth and sixth after the stops, because they, like Harvick, also took four.

Kahne was able to keep Keselowski behind him after the restart at Lap 106, while Johnson once again had a poor restart and lost a couple of positions.

The yellow came back on Lap 116 for an incident involving Timmy Hill, and Kenseth took advantage of it to come to pit road for four tires and a chassis adjustment to try and cure his handling woes. However, he fell all the way back to 28th after doing so.

Keselowski leaped ahead of Kahne to grab the lead off the restart at Lap 121, while Kenseth set about trying to climb through the field. Ten laps later, at Lap 131, Travis Kvapil appeared to have a motor let go and Dave Blaney spun out behind him to bring out another yellow flag.

With some drivers choosing to pit, Kenseth stayed out and rose up to 15th during the caution. But on the restart at Lap 137, he promptly lost multiple spots and then fell out of the Top 20 at Lap 140.

A four-car pileup at Lap 145 triggered the caution, with Cole Whitt taking the most severe damage in the melee. Also involved were Danica Patrick, Justin Allgaier and David Reutimann.

Keselowski, Harvick and Johnson were among the front-runners that opted to pit in this yellow, while Gordon chose to stay out and take over the lead. Kenseth also stayed out, enabling him to move back up to 10th.

However, Johnson has been told that he can make the finish on just one more stop, which could prove critical later on.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.