We’re back at Phoenix International Raceway this weekend for the Advocare 500, and this will be the third race on the new surface and track configuration. This brings up one variable for fantasy racers: should you look at a driver’s overall history at this track or just the two races on the “new” Phoenix? Qualifying got even more important (in my opinion) once the track was re-configured, so make sure you keep that in mind this weekend.
During The Last Race At Phoenix…Denny Hamlin found himself in victory lane when the Subway Fresh Fit 500 was all said and done. He led 61 of the 312 laps that day. Kevin Harvick finished 2nd after leading a race-high 88 laps, and Greg Biffle followed him to the line in 3rd. Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 5.
Practice Schedule…The schedule this weekend is very close to what we went through last weekend in Texas. At 2:00 pm on Friday the first practice session of the weekend will be held followed by qualifying at 6:00 pm. On Saturday morning, at 11:30 am, the second practice of the weekend will start and then Happy Hour is set to begin at 2:30 pm that day. The Advocare 500 is set to go green around 3:00 pm on Sunday.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Advocare 500:
*Chase participants marked in red*
1. Jimmie Johnson – Phoenix has always been one of Five Time’s best tracks on the circuit–he’s never finished worse than 15th in eighteen career starts–and I’d be willing to bet that he’s going to be challenging for the win once again on Sunday evening, and there’s also a good chance that he gets a third straight. In my personal opinion, the #48 Chevrolet was the best car here back in February, and his 14th-place effort in this event last season was due mainly to the re-configuration (the entire Hendrick was off that weekend). Jimmie has finished inside the top 5 in eleven of the last twelve Phoenix races, and unless he wrecks or has a mechanical issue on Sunday, he’s pretty much a lock for another. It’d be absolutely foolish to go against the #48 this weekend.
2. Brad Keselowski – Wouldn’t it be great if we saw another “2011 Tony Stewart v. Carl Edwards” battle this year? I’ve been saying it for awhile, and judging from last weekend it looks like it may be possible. Brad Keselowski tends to perform better at tracks when the series visits them a second time in a season. That’s a good sign for the #2 team because the Blue Deuce was a top 5 car here last time around, as I said before. BK’s career average finish at Phoenix in six starts has been 22.2, but you should know by now to ignore that number (although ESPN won’t). Keselowski will be a top 5 car on Sunday evening and there’s no reason to think otherwise, due partly to what I like to call “the Chase effect”. The question is to whether or not this team will be able to put a better car on the track than the #48 this weekend–or implement better strategy.
3. Kyle Busch – Believe it or not, only Jimmie Johnson has a better average driver rating over the last five Phoenix races than Rowdy Busch. I don’t think there’s any doubt the #18 Toyota will have a bunch of speed this weekend, but like it has been for the entire Chase thus far (well, the whole season really) it will come down to whether Kyle and the team can finish the race. Obviously I think they will be able to and, if that is the case, Busch should be a top 5 driver on Sunday–where he has finished at in four of the last five Sprint Cup races. Kyle finished 6th here back in February and led 52 laps.
4. Jeff Gordon – There are two main reasons that I like Jeff Gordon so much this weekend. One, his record at Phoenix is pretty good: in twenty-seven career starts in the desert, he owns an average finish of 10.8 and has collected two wins, the most recent coming last season. And the second (and more important) reason is the #24 Chevrolet has had a phenomenal record on the flat tracks this season. I do have my concerns, though, and you could see Jeff tumble in my final rankings on Saturday. After his awesome run in August and September, Gordon not hasn’t finished better than 7th in the last month of Sprint Cup action and has finished outside of the top 10 in two of those four events. Be sure to watch the #24 in practice this weekend. As a side note, I think the whole Hendrick stable will be strong this weekend.
5. Clint Bowyer – Clint’s record here at Phoenix is not very good–fourteen starts, 16.9 average finish, and just two top 5s–but doesn’t it seem like I’ve been saying that for the whole Chase? This team has been cranking out solid finishes week in and week out since NASCAR’s playoffs began, and if they wouldn’t have had the hiccup at Talladega in October, the championship race would probably be a three-man contest. Clint has just one top 20 finish at Phoenix in the last four events at this track, but like Brad Keselowski you kind of need to disregard his record here. There’s no reason to think that the #15 Toyota will be a solid top 10 car–if not better–all day on Sunday.
6. Kasey Kahne – As I said before, I’m expecting a good weekend out of the Hendrick organization. They have been one of the stronger teams here at Phoenix over the last few years and I don’t expect that to change on Sunday. In case you forgot, Kasey won this event a year ago while driving for Red Bull Racing, and he was running inside the top 5 here back in February but ended up in the wall and finished 34th. That was when this team had very bad luck, though, so keep that in mind. Kahne’s record at this track is anything but stellar–20.0 average finish in sixteen starts–but when he has a good car, he tends to get the finish. Kasey let fantasy owners down in Texas last weekend but I think he’ll bounce back in the desert and should have a top 10 car.
7. Tony Stewart – I say it every single week, but it’s true: it’s almost impossible to predict how Tony Stewart will be during any given Sprint Cup weekend based on the simple fact that this team is so non-consistant. That being said, I think Smoke’s 5th-place run in Texas last weekend will give him momentum here in Phoenix on Sunday. He finished 3rd in this event last season (which, to be fair, was during his awesome Chase run) and has led 228 laps combined over the last three races here. The #14 has been real solid on the flat tracks this season and I think that continues this weekend. As usual, however, make you Smoke’s car is good in practice. I don’t see him challenging for a top 5 in the Advocare 500 but a top 10 isn’t out of the question at all.
8. Ryan Newman – “The Rocketman” always excels on the flat tracks and should be a popular pick this weekend. He has been disappointing all season long, though, so make sure the #39 Chevrolet looks good in practice on Saturday before going “all in”. That being said, Newman has been really good here at Phoenix since joining Stewart-Haas Racing. He finished 21st here back in February, but before that Ryan was on a four-race streak of top 5s at this track, including a win here in 2010. Newman’s career average finish at this track is 18.7 but I expect him to be much better than that on Sunday.
9. Denny Hamlin – Surprised that the most recent winner at this track is ranked so low? That’s understandable, but there’s a method to my madness. It’s been shuffled in the news because of the battle between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, but it’s starting to look like the #11 team is dismantling. This team was just off last weekend in Texas and ended up finished 20th. What’s even more concerning is the fact that that is Hamlin’s fourth finish OUTSIDE of the top 10 in the last five Sprint Cup races–and third straight. However, you can’t look past the fact that Denny has a career average finish of 10.9 in fourteen starts at this track and has just one finish worst than 12th in the last nine.
10. Kevin Harvick – ATTENTION: We have finally seen Kevin Harvick inside the top 10! With his 9th-place finish at Texas last weekend, “Happy” grabbed his first top 10 in Sprint Cup action since early September. And the good news for Harvick fans is that he may be able to make it two in a row this weekend in Phoenix. In three of the last four races at this track, Harvick has finished 6th or better, and that includes his 2nd-place run here back in February, as I stated before–but I don’t see that happening again. Only two drivers (Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman) have a better average finish than “Happy” at this track in the last five events. Nothing is guaranteed with this team, though, so make sure you pay attention to the #29 in practice.
11. Joey Logano – SLEEPER ALERT! Phoenix is Sliced Bread’s sixth-best track on the circuit, but you could argue that it is more like one of his top two or three. In seven career starts here, Joey has amassed an average finish of 15.6, but since his rookie season he’s been a lot better than that. In the five races here since 2009, Logano has ended up 11th or better in four of them, and the lone exception was the February race here in 2011, where the #20 ended up 33rd. Keep in mind, however, that Joey started 6th that race but had engine problems. He finished 11th in Texas last weekend and could challenge for a top 10 in the desert on Sunday.
12. Mark Martin – In reality, this ranking is too low for Mark Martin because this is his best track on the circuit. In thirty-one starts here, Martin has amassed a career average finish of 9th (second-best among active drivers) and two wins. He won the pole here back in March and ended up 9th despite only leading one lap. That makes it seventeen straight Phoenix races that Martin has finished 16th or better, and that shouldn’t change on Sunday, as this race isn’t very long mileage-wise (engine issues). About the only concerning thing about Mark Martin this week is that he has finished outside of the top 10 in three of his last five Sprint Cup starts, but a couple of those weren’t due to a slow race car by any means.
13. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Junior is a two-time winner at Phoenix International Raceway but those came back in the 2003 and 2004 seasons. A lot has changed since then, and Earnhardt has posted just one top 10 finish in his last seven starts at this track. The good news, however, is that in the last five, he has ended up 14th or better in four of them, and I expect that to happen once again on Sunday. The #88 has been decently strong on the flat tracks in 2012 and you should know by now what I think about Hendrick this weekend. This team’s 7th-place effort in Texas last week may just give them a shot in the arm that they need to finish out this season strong.
14. Greg Biffle – The Biff is either really good here or really bad, so keep that in mind this weekend. He finished 3rd here back in March, as I said before, and was 4th in this event during the 2010 season. However, in the two races between those two events, Biffle ended up 20th and 13th. In seventeen career starts at this track, Greg has averaged a finish of 14.1 and has posted five top 5s. It’s worth noting, however, that he has just six top 10s–reiterating the fact that he’s somewhat hit-or-miss. The #16 has ended up inside the top 10 in four of the last five Sprint Cup races (despite people thinking that they are struggling) and this team could challenge for another on Sunday. Be sure to keep an eye on Biffle in practice.
15. Matt Kenseth – Roush isn’t incredible here, but they tend to be pretty consistent, so that’s a good thing. In the last five events at Phoenix, Kenseth and the #17 team have finished 14th or better in four of them, and the lone exception was this event last season. Keep in mind, however, that Matt won the pole for that event and led 49 laps before finishing 34th (driveraverages.com lists the reason as “accident”). Kenseth has struggled on the flat tracks this season, however, so I’m a bit concerned with that. We’ll have to see what the #17 Ford looks like in practice on Saturday.