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.

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.