The last time that the Sprint Cup Series visited Phoenix International Raceway was a sort of "first time" for all of the drivers. After the first race here in 2011, the "old Phoenix" was re-constructed into the Phoenix we now know. With a new pavement came some new faces up front as well, with Kasey Kahne grabbing his first win at Phoenix for Red Bull Racing and notching just his second top 5 at this track. That race was a Chase race, though, and I find that those races tend to skew statistics at times. Still, Phoenix International Raceway is a flat d-shaped oval, and I expect those that excel on this track type to succeed this weekend as well. Let's just hope--for fantasy racers--that there isn't another "big one" in the desert like last year (video here).
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During The Last Race At Phoenix...As I said before, it was Kasey Kahne who took the checkered flag last November, but Tony Stewart dominated most of that race, leading 160 of the 312 laps ran in the desert. Carl Edwards followed Kahne to the line and "Smoke" ended up 3rd. To round out the top five, Jeff Burton posted second, and final, top 5 finish of the season when he ended up 4th and Ryan Newmanfinished 5th.
Practice Schedule...There are two practices scheduled for Friday (2:30 pm and 5:30 pm, both Eastern Time) and qualifying will be Saturday afternoon at 2:30 as well. Similar to the weekend schedules of the 2011 season, there will be no practice time once the starting lineup is set.
1. Carl Edwards - Cousin Carl has won two poles in the last three Phoenix events, and he has had a car that was capable of winning in all three. Edwards took the checkered flag in the fall race in 2010 and finished 2nd in the 2011 November race, but ended up 28th in this event last year. He led 21 laps that day, though, and was very confident that he should have won that day (Edwards got caught up in the big wreck on the backstretch). Over fifteen starts in the desert, Carl has averaged a finish of 12.3 and recorded ten top 10s. The #99 Ford should be a rocket once again this weekend in Phoenix.
2. Jimmie Johnson - Although this isn't Jimmie Johnson's best track, his record at Phoenix is incredible. In seventeen starts in the desert, Five time has amassed four victories and has an average finish of 5.4 (seriously). What's even more impressive is that Johnson has never finished worse than 15th here and he has led 876 laps on this track, which is best in the series. Jimmie's average driver rating of 106.4 over the last four events here is fourth-best in the series.
3. Jeff Gordon - "Three Time" was the best flat track driver in 2011, and although his record isn't as stellar as his teammate's, Gordon is still a great driver at Phoenix. Over twenty-six career starts here, Jeff has amassed an average finish of 10.9 and has visited victory lane twice. Over half of his starts (eighteen to be exact) in Phoenix have ended with a top 10 finish. Gordon won this event last season, and I'm just going to throw out his result in the fall race because of how terrible his car was (Jeff ended up 32nd, by the way). Four of the last five Phoenix races have ended with Gordon in the top 11.
4. Ryan Newman - Qualifying proved to be crucial during the last race at Phoenix, so you should keep "The Rocketman" in mind on that fact alone (although, ironically, he started 30th in that race before finishing 5th). With that being said, Newman has four consecutive top 5s at Phoenix and has had the best average finish on flat tracks (8.7) in the Sprint Cup Series over the last two years. Don't let that career average finish of 18.6 at this track scare you away: Ryan Newman will be a good pick come Sunday.
5. Tony Stewart - Smoke was near the front pretty much all race the last time the series visited Phoenix, and it wouldn't surprise me if him and his teammate did the same thing on Sunday. Stewart finished 3rd in that race, but he led 160 laps, and in the spring race here in 2011, Tony led 59 laps before finishing 7th. His lone win at this track came in his first start here, and Stewart owns an average finish of 11.3 in twenty career starts in the desert. Over the last two years, Smoke has the third-best average finish of anyone in the series on flat tracks.
6. Kevin Harvick - Happy is somewhat of a hit-or-miss driver at Phoenix, so take this ranking for what it's worth and realize that it may change once I see practice. That being said, Harvick does have two victories at Phoenix and has been the second-best driver in the Sprint Cup Series on flat tracks over the last two years. Kevin has finished 6th or better in two of the last three Phoenix events and his average driver rating of 95.5 over the last four events here is seventh-best in the series.
7. Matt Kenseth - Kenseth actually had a pretty strong Ford here in November before Brian Vickerswrecked him. He started on the pole that day and led 49 laps before that little "accident" happened, dooming Kenseth to a 34th-place finish. In nineteen career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, the 2003 champ has posted only eight top 10s, but two of those have come in the 2009 events, and he finished 12th in this race last season. Kenseth finished in the top 20 in all of the flat track races in 2010, and had top 10s in three of those seven races.
8. Kyle Busch - Rowdy finished 2nd in this race last season, and in his past four starts at this track, Busch has led a total of 142 laps. He raced from the back of the pack up to 3rd in the November event here last season, but then his engine blew. If the Gibbs Toyotas have fixed their engine problem, look out this weekend for the entire stable. Kyle has eight top 10s in fourteen career starts at this track, and won the fall event here during his rookie campaign.
9. Denny Hamlin - Is Denny over his "hangover," as DW calls it? This team struggled on the flat tracks in 2011, but you can't use one year worth of finishes to judge how good of a flat track racer Hamlin is. He still knows how to get around these tracks, and Denny has the fifth-best average finish in the series at Phoenix. Hamlin has never won here but hasn't finished worse than 12th in his last three starts in the desert and ended up between 3rd and 6th in all four races in 2008 and 2009.
10. Joey Logano - Well, Sliced Bread started his rebound season off on a solid note in Daytona, and I think this weekend in Phoenix we will see another strong showing from this team. Overall, Logano hasn't been too bad at this flat track: he finished 21st in both of his first two starts in the desert and has finished in the top 10 in three of his last four starts here. The race that didn't end in a top 10 for Joey was this race last season, when he finished 33rd after blowing an engine. However, he did qualify 6th in that race.
11. A.J. Allmendinger - Here's Allmendinger's chance to show that the move to Penske Racing was the right one and that he has a better chance of grabbing his first career win with them. A.J. has just one finish outside of the top 20 in his seven career starts here, and while he was driving for Richard Petty Motorsports last year, The Dinger finished in the top 10 in both races in the desert. Kurt Busch ran real well here last season in A.J.'s new ride, leading at least 30 laps in both events. Allmendinger did promise a rebound in Phoenix on Twitter.
12. Greg Biffle - The Biff was pretty good in the later flat track races in 2011, and after his solid run in the Daytona 500, I expect Biffle's rebound season to continue in the desert on Sunday. In sixteen starts at this track, Greg has just five top 10s--including two runner-ups--and averages a finish of 14.8. Over the last two years, Biffle has the eighth-best average finish on flat tracks.
13. Marcos Ambrose - I like how Ambrose's season started in Daytona, and I still think this is going to be a big year for the Tasmanian Devil. I love considering Marcos on shorter tracks that brakes could become a factor because of his skills in saving them. In the fall race last year, Marcos started 3rd and grabbed his first top 10 at Phoenix with a solid 8th-place finish. In seven career starts here, Ambrose has just one finish outside of the top 20 (a 22nd in 2010) and an average finish of 14.3.
14. Kasey Kahne - Surprised to see the track's most recent winner this far down on the list? Don't be. Up until last season, Kasey's success at Phoenix has been limited: in the eight races from 2007 to 2010, Kahne failed to finish better than 13th and led a grand total of zero laps. In 2011, he finished 6th in this race, and, as you know, won the fall race despite leading only 14 laps. He should have a better car than he did last fall with his move to Hendrick, but if those Chevys look to be struggling in practice, I'd stay away from Kahne. His average finish in fifteen starts has been 19.1.
15. Brad Keselowski - BK's average finish of 25.6 at Phoenix International Raceway is a little scary, but when you take out the two races where he had problems (in 2009 and 2010--accident), Keselowski has finished in the teens in his other three starts (16th, 15th, and 18th). This race will be an early determinant of whether or not Bad Brad's success last season was a fluke or not. Let's just hope he doesn't have time to tweet until after the race.
Those To Avoid Entering The Subway Fresh Fit 500:
Clint Bowyer - Now is when the answer will come to the question I have been wondering all off-season: how big of a step back did Clint Bowyer take when he decided to join Michael Waltrip Racing? The MWR Toyotas have been consistently average at Phoenix: Martin Truex, Jr.'s average finish has been 16.5 since he jumped in the #56, and David Reutimann, despite finishing 7th here in November, recorded an average finish of 19.4 during his span with the team. Clint ended up in 10th here in the last visit, but his average driver rating was just 17th-best. He's finished in the top 20 in just a little over 50% of the race he has started in the desert.
Regan Smith - In the last three races at Phoenix, Regan has two qualifying efforts in the top 8, but when it comes to actually racing, the numbers are the complete opposite. He finished 34th and 38th in the races here last season and in seven career starts at this track, Smith has only been able to muster a best finish of 23rd. He's only completed 83.7% of the laps ran in those races, and that low of a number is one you expect at a restrictor plate track, not a flat track. Avoid at all costs.
Aric Almirola - This could easily change based on how he practices. Let's not forget how well the Richard Petty Motorsports Fords performed here last November, and A.J. Allmendinger drove this car to top 10s in both Phoenix races last season. In the Sprint Cup Series, Almirola has made two starts at Phoenix (for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in 2007 and Richard Petty Motorsports in 2010) and finished 26th and 27th in those two races, respectively. He could maybe sneak out with a top 15 if his car is good, though. In the Nationwide race last November, Aric won the pole but an accident delegated him to a 25th-place finish.