Now that we’re past the first unpredictable plate race of the season, it’s time for fantasy racers to buckle down and get series. Last week at Daytona, the Toyotas–specifically those in the Joe Gibbs camp–had various problems that has to make you wonder whether or not they will carry into Phoenix this weekend. Remember that, to the dismay of fantasy owners, Kyle Busch continually had engine problems in 2012.
Phoenix International Raceway was repaved and reconfigured during the 2011 season, and the changes were so drastic that I don’t think that it is worth really looking at race results here before then. The Cup Series has now had three races on this “new” track, with Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, and Kevin Harvick being the drivers who have visited victory lane in those events.
Weekend Schedule: Practice on Friday starting at 2:00 pm and lasting until 3:25 pm followed by qualifying on at 6:00 pm. On Saturday, there is an hour-long practice set to begin at noon followed by final practice going from 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm. All times are in Eastern. The Subway Fresh Fit 500 is set to go green around 3:00 pm on Sunday.
Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is arguably the best in the series on this “new” Phoenix race track. In the three races here since the repavement/reconfiguration, Denny has led 107 laps and posted a 2nd-place finish last fall to go with his win here last spring–the first of his career at this track. Hamlin was unstoppable on the flat tracks in 2012 (there was only one race he finished worse than 6th) and that should carry into this season as well. The #11 Toyota should be a threat for the win come Sunday, assuming the engine can hold on long enough.
Kyle Busch – If Hamlin is the best driver at Phoenix right now, then Kyle Busch is a close second. In the first race on the new track, Rowdy had an engine problem that left him in the garage early and in 36th place. It’s worth noting, however, that Kyle started 34th that day and drove up through the field into the top 5 by about lap 170. In this race last season, Busch led 52 laps and ended up 6th, and followed that up with a dominating race last November, leading 237 of the 319 laps. If there wasn’t a late caution that day, I firmly believe that Rowdy would have cruised to victory. However, he ended up 3rd. Again, the engine problems with the Gibbs cars last week are a bit concerning, but mechanical failures are something you just can’t predict in fantasy racing.
Jimmie Johnson – To put it simply, the “old” Phoenix International Raceway was Jimmie Johnson’s playground. The stats he put up from 2006 to 2011 were borderline ridiculous: over those ten races, “Five Time” never finished worse than 5th (seriously) and ended up in victory lane on four separate occasions. Once this track was reconfigured and repaved, however, the field caught up. The entire Hendrick organization struggled in the first race on the “new” track, and Johnson ended up 14th that day. He followed that with a solid 4th-place effort in this event last season (after leading 55 laps), and then regressed last fall with his 32nd-place finish. As you probably recall, however, that bad finish was due to a tire problem that sent the #48 Chevrolet into the wall. Johnson was running in 7th place at the time. Assuming that that doesn’t happen again, however, you could see this #48 team start off 2-for-2 on Sunday.
Kasey Kahne – Kasey Kahne was the first driver to get a victory on the reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway back in 2011, and that win came during his awesome season-ending run with Red Bull Racing. In my opinion, Hendrick got off to a slow start on the “new” Phoenix, but they should be caught up by now. In this event last season, Kasey ended up 34th, but you have to remember that that was right in the middle of this team’s early season slump/bad luck streak. He was solidly inside the top 5 during that race before saying hello to the wall around lap 20. Kahne rebounded last November with a solid 4th-place outing, which is also where he qualified.
Kevin Harvick – Harvick was about as good as you can get at Phoenix in 2012. After having arguably the best car in the spring race–he led 88 laps and had a race-high driver rating of 134.7–and finished 2nd, “Happy” came back in the fall and led the last 15 laps in the desert to get his only win of the season. In terms of overall history, Harvick is a three-time winner at Phoenix and has finished 6th or better in four of the last five races here. I see no reason why he wouldn’t be able to make it five of the last six on Sunday.
Should Be Solid
Brad Keselowski – The 2012 champion had one of the best cars here last time around and should be solid once again this weekend. Keselowski led 10 laps in last November’s Phoenix race and ended up 6th. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that as soon as Jimmie Johnson went to the garage, the Blue Deuce started falling back (read: Brad was playing it conservative). Click here to see the Yahoo! chart of these two drivers in that race. Look closely around lap 230 onward. Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe are the best in the business at strategy, and one thing has been clear since the reconfiguration of Phoenix: track position is vital. Brad was 5th in the spring race here last season and should be a great pick once again on Sunday.
Ryan Newman – “The Rocketman” used to be one of the best flat track racers in the series (in my opinion), but he has regressed a little bit. Still, in the last three Phoenix races, Newman has recorded two top 5s, and has finished solidly inside the top 5 in five of the last six events here. For whatever reason, the Stewart-Haas Chevrolets are generally really strong here. It’s going to take a couple really good practice sessions out of this #39 team for me to strongly recommend picking Newman this weekend, but I think a top 10 finish (at least) should be expected out of him on Sunday.
Greg Biffle – The Biff isn’t someone that immediately comes to your mind when the series stops at Phoenix, but he’s been one of only a few drivers that have been solid in every race at this track since it was reconfigured. Biffle ended up 13th in the fall race here back in 2011 and followed that up with 3rd- and 7th-place efforts here last season. He hasn’t led a lap at this track since 2008 but it’s hard to look away from solid finishes.
Matt Kenseth – Phoenix has been one of Kenseth’s worst tracks on the circuit throughout his career, but I think his move to Joe Gibbs Racing should bump his performance up a little bit. He ended up 14th here last fall after finishing 13th in the spring race, which are both better than Matt’s career average finish at this track (17.7). It’s worth noting that in the first race on the “new” Phoenix, Kenseth led 49 laps after starting on the pole but wound up finishing 34th after Brian Vickers wrecked him. It’s safe to say that the #17 would have challenged for the win that day if Vickers wouldn’t have retaliated.
Clint Bowyer – Clint is slowly becoming on the better flat track racers (and just racer in general) in the series. He ended up 28th here last time around, but remember that was only because Jeff Gordon decided to wreck him. Bowyer was running 5th at the time and well on his way to a solid finish in that race. He has only one top 10 finish in the last five Phoenix races, but sometimes history needs to be overlooked. The #15 Toyota should be challenging for at least a top 10 come Sunday.
Juan Montoya – Montoya hasn’t been great since Phoenix has been reconfigured, but he’s been solidly above average and a threat for a top 10 in all three races thus far. Last fall he ended up 12th after qualifying 21st and he was 11th in the spring race. In 12 career starts here, Montoya has finished inside the top 20 in all but two of them. If he puts down a fast qualifying lap on Friday, JPM is definitely one driver to consider as a sleeper for a top 10.
Kurt Busch – Whether it has been the new configuration or the old one, Kurt Busch has had success at Phoenix. He has recorded one victory here (back in 2005) and boasts an impressive 13.3 average finish–good enough for 9th-best in the series. Last fall, Kurt was able to drive the #78 Chevrolet to a solid 8th-place finish after qualifying 6th. The only thing you have to worry about when picking the elder Busch brother is his pit crew, as they could cost him valuable track position throughout the day.
Danica Patrick – Now that Danica has recorded her first top 10 in the Sprint Cup Series, will she be able to make it two in a row at Phoenix? Probably not. Still, she could be a nice sleeper pick this weekend for a couple of reasons. Last time we were here, Patrick was pretty impressive, staying on the lead lap for most of the day and getting all the way up to 13th in the closing laps before the wreck happened. She ended up 17th. Also, Danica’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, knows flat tracks pretty well, and he won a race here in 2010 while on the pit box for Ryan Newman.