If it feels as if we just got done with Speedweeks yesterday, it's because we did. After going into the race schedule version of overtime, the Daytona 500 was finally finished with early Tuesday morning. After over 36 hours of waiting, Matt Kenseth finally took home the checkers. Will his 2009 luck of winning the season's second race carry over this time???
Located in the deserts of Avondale, Arizona, this challenging 1.0-mile flat track has been on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule since 1988. The track was reconfigured during most of 2011, and the new surface and layout have just 1 full Cup race on them. The new configuration made the track more like her typical 1.5 mile sister tracks by moving the back straightaway, but overall is still a tough track. Banking is 10 to 11 degrees in turns 1-2, while banking in turns 3-4 is slightly less, at 8 to 9 degrees. Down the unique curved back straightaway, banking is also variable, from 8 to 9 degrees. The front straightaway is the flattest portion of the track, at just 3 degrees. Pit road speed limit is 45mph.
PIR was reconfigured and repaved immediately following the 2011 spring race. Except for a tire test session and the one Cup race, the updated track has seen no action. Among the changes (other than repaving), the track's frontstretch was widened to to 62 feet (an increase of 10 feet), the dogleg on the backstretch was moved out 95 feet -- shifting the apex by about 300 feet -- and gradual banking was added in the corners (but the difference from the bottom of the track to the top is only one degree). While many questions were answered in the first race back in November, there are still remaining curiosities. The weather is much different between the spring and fall races, so the question of how the surface will handle in milder weather remains.
Although many questions about the track remain, even more is true for the driver and crew chief changes during this past offseason. Let's face it, restrictor-plate racing is just not a very good way to monitor how teams will work together in the season. The Subway Fresh Fit 500 will surely be a test of driver, equipment, and team quality. Phoenix has been known for years as a track that demands a lot from engines and tires, especially in the closing laps. Fuel mileage has also affected the races for quite a while, which is perhaps the toughest part of a crew chief's job. With the flat banking and high speeds, a driver's physical condition is important to endure all 500 kilometers of racing. Without a doubt, this event will separate the men from the boys.
As for Fantasy picks, using past Phoenix stats don't tremendously help because of the recent reconfiguration. I would pay attention to the stats of the drivers using only the last Phoenix race, along with Richmond, a similar track. Must-have this weekend are Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, and Ryan Newman. Edwards has had lots of success at this track over his entire career, and enjoyed a 2nd-place run last October, in which only he and Tony Stewart ran in the top 15 the entire race. Gordon won this event in 2011, and with last year's fall race winner Kasey Kahne on his team to share notes and setups, I look for him to be towards the front of the pack. Newman, while quiet, is the only driver in the series to record 4 consecutive top 5 finishes, including a pair of 5th-place finishes on both the old and new configurations. These three drivers can often be overlooked, despite their series-leading stats, with other competitors such as Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin available. But the truth is that both Johnson and Martin have lacked success in recent years, combining for 0 wins and only 4 top fives in their past 8 races, three of which are by Johnson.
Drivers to stay away from include Kurt Busch, David Ragan, Regan Smith, Aric Almirola, and many more. Both Busch and Ragan didn't produce decent performances in their past rides, so there's no reason to believe that they suddenly will in underfunded cars. As with many other tracks, Smith has no teammate to exchange notes with and that hurts him. A dismal average finish of 26th over his career proves that on these tough tracks, single-car teams aren't competitive. Almirola wrecked and finished 26th in last years' Nationwide races, and along with his lack of experience with RPM, he is a very risky pick for all Fantasy owners.
Speed's broadcast of Practice 1 for the Cup Series begins at 2:30pm ET on Friday, followed immediately with another session 3 hours later. Qualifying is on at 2:30pm Saturday, also on Speed, as the only on-track action for the series that day. FOX will air the Subway Fresh Fit 500 (500 kilometers/312 miles/312 laps) at 2:30pm Sunday, with the green flag scheduled to drop at approximately 3:14pm.