Saturday, November 13, 2010

Chase Coverage: Phoenix Preview

Overview of the spring race at Phoenix. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

The Chase heads to the desert for race #9, the second-to-last race of the 2010 Sprint Cup season. The heat is on at Phoenix International Raceway as the battle continues to tighten between the top 3 in the points standings. Only 59 points separates the top 3 drivers.

Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick all have something to prove at Phoenix. In the history of the Chase, the driver leading with two races to go has always gone on to win the chamionpship. This bodes well for leader Denny Hamlin, but not for four-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who for the first time in the last four years is not sitting in that top spot. Will the pit crew swap between the 48 and the 24 turn things around? Let's not forget Kevin Harvick, who is very good at the one-mile flat track. All three qualified mid-pack for Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500, but you can bet it won't stay that way once the green flag drops.

With the title hunt this close, fans can look forward to an exciting race in the desert. Let's see what 12 of our contributors have to say about the Chase drivers' chances at Phoenix.

1. Denny Hamlin - Holly Machuga
Denny Hamlin goes into the second-to-last Sprint Cup race first in points. He has earned eight wins, two of them being within the Chase, 14 top-fives, 18 top-10s, and two poles. His average finish is a 12.9.

At Phoenix International Raceway, Hamlin has five top-fives, six top-10s, and one pole. In 10 races, he has an average finish of 11.6. This puts him eighth best out of all the drivers in Sprint Cup. It is a decent track for him, and he can look to earning his first win and possibly third Chase win this weekend.

Last week, Denny surpassed four-time championship driver Jimmie Johnson for the points lead after his win at Texas Motor Speedway. He also won this race in the spring after getting knee surgery for his torn ACL.
Now that the No. 11 team is in the lead, they won’t just coast. They will race for the win and race the hardest they have raced all season. This is sure to be an exciting end to the year!

2. Jimmie Johnson - Rebecca Kivak
After a difficult race at Texas, Jimmie Johnson enters the ninth race of the Chase in unfamiliar territory: out of the top spot. For the first time since 2005, the four-time champion finds himself in second place, 33 points out. It is a gap that can be overcome, but with the title battle this close, Johnson and the No. 48 team need to maximize points in the next two races to get back on top. Enter Phoenix International Raceway, which gives the driver of the No. 48 a chance to make up valuable ground and claim a much-needed win.

Johnson couldn't ask for a better track than Phoenix after last week. He has four wins at the one-mile oval, all of which have come in the last six races, including three Chase races. In his last eight starts here, he has finished inside the top 4. At Phoenix, Johnson has his best average finish at any track, a solid 4.9. His driver rating of 123.7 leads all drivers in the series. His other stats here include nine top 5s, 12 top 10s and one pole in 14 starts. He has completed 100 percent of 4,438 laps at Phoenix and has led 857 laps.

Johnson's stellar track record at Phoenix works to his advantage as he pits with a new crew this weekend. The No. 48 crew had struggled in the pits this season, and after a pit crew swap at Texas, the No. 24 crew will be pitting for Johnson for the last two races. The two teams work in the same shop and their crews train together, which explains why the 24 crew stepped in as capably as they did last week. Johnson admits the swap will be "uncharted territory," but all members of the revamped No. 48 team share the same goal: fighting for a historic fifth title.

“The last four years we have been in a different position. I have lost plenty of championships in the past and this is racing and it doesn’t come easy and you are not going to get what you want every single year and every single weekend,” Johnson said. “But I can promise you this. I am trying as hard as I can; I know my team is, and we are doing everything we can. Thirty-three points back is not where we want to be but we are going to work to get back on top.”

3. Kevin Harvick - Amber Arnold
Phoenix is a track that has been good to Harvick over the span of his 15 starts there. His two wins, three top fives, and six top 10s have all contributed to a tenth-best driver rating of 94.6. His average finish is 15th while Johnson’s is 4.9 and Hamlin’s is 11.6.

This weekend is pivotal for this 29 team in the Chase. With just one race left, they sit third in points, 59 out of the lead and 26 out of second. While the Shell/Penzoil guys are still in it, they’re going to need some help in these last two races. Phoenix is a track Johnson has great success at, while Homestead is one of Hamlin’s best tracks on the circuit. Harvick needs to capitalize on a mistake made by either one of these teams to gain some ground before going into the last race of the season next week. 

4. Carl Edwards - Amanda Ebersole
There are only two races to go as we head to Phoenix this weekend, and the battle in the Chase to the Sprint Cup is extremely tight. My focus, Carl Edwards, is fourth in the points and is 317 behind our new points leader Denny Hamlin.

Carl has compiled four top-five and 8 top-10 finishes and one pole in his 12 races at PIR. His best finish has been fourth place three times (both 2008 races and also April 2006). Carl has an average starting spot of 12, and an average finish of 12.

Crew chief Bob Osborne is unloading the same car that Carl has previously raced at Kansas, Indy and Michigan. The car has finished no worse than seventh in those three starts. Bob’s thoughts on heading to Phoenix : “We have had very fast race cars in the past at Phoenix but Carl has yet to win a Cup race there. Phoenix is a unique race track in shape and that makes it a challenge relative to car handling – it is hard to setup the car so it handles just right at both ends. We’re taking a car that has run well in the three races we’ve taken it to this year. It was new at Indy and our best finish with it was third at Michigan. Hopefully it can help us get a win this weekend.”

Carl has sentimental ties to PIR. It was the site of his first pavement race back in 2001 when he drove a USAC silver crown car. His thoughts on heading back to Phoenix: “It’s a driver’s race track. It’s a track where the driver can make a big difference. Obviously, your car has to be set up really well, but once the car is perfect, that’s a track where it truly comes down to the driver. It’s such a unique track, it’s got bumps and it’s really unique. If you win that race, it’s one you can really be proud of, so I’d love to win a Cup race out there."

5. Matt Kenseth - Whitney Richards
Following his second-place finish last weekend at Texas, Matt Kenseth comes to Phoenix International Raceway looking to better that result. He is currently winless this season, and it seems that the team’s great run at Texas has made them more determined to win this weekend.

Kenseth has one win at Phoenix (November 2002), but in his 16 starts, has achieved five top 5s and seven top 10s. He has completed 4,573 of 5,062 laps at Phoenix and has 2 DNFs (November 2000 and April 2005).

This weekend, Kenseth will have Valvoline on the No. 17 machine instead of the usual Crown Royal. The team will be running chassis RK-698, which was last run at Kansas. Kenseth’s setup for the race is based on the one he ran earlier this year at Phoenix . He is currently fifth in the standings.

6. Jeff Gordon - Genevieve Cadorette
Jeff Gordon's week has been eventful. After Sunday's race in Texas, he found out that he will now have a new pit crew. Jimmie Johnson's crew will now be Gordon's pit crew. No worries, he hasn't lost his team or his crew chief or his sponsors; he just swapped pit crews with teammate Johnson. The #24 and the #48 crews do train together and compete against one another. The switch is exciting for them; each crew wants to do well and win for their driver regardless whose car they're working on.

After a fun night at the Country Music Awards show Wednesday where Gordon was a presenter, he took off to face the Phoenix International Speedway in Arizona. It's a tough one-mile track that's been challenging for him, but he likes it, saying, "Both ends of the race track are complete opposites and it's impossible to get both ends to work perfectly."

Gordon's track record at PIR is one win, nine top fives and 17 top-10s. He's won three poles since he started to race there at the age of 18.

7. Kyle Busch - Rebecca Kivak
(Note: Rebecca is covering Kyle for Lindi Bess, whose original preview did not save correctly.)
After a much publicized gesture to a NASCAR official, Kyle Busch's two-lap penalty at Texas left him with a 32nd-place finish, falling out of the top 5 in the Chase points standings. Only 14 points out of the fifth spot, the driver of the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota will try to recoup at Phoenix, where he had a dominating performance in the spring.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had one of the best cars during the April race, leading 131 laps. That one race alone accounts for the majority of the 191 laps he has led during his Cup career at Phoenix. Busch finished eighth after a late-race pit strategy didn't go his way. There's no doubt Busch would like to finish what he started in the spring and take home the win this weekend.

Busch likes Phoenix and considers it a good track for him. He has two Nationwide wins there and one Sprint Cup win, his only series top 5 at the one-mile oval. His other Cup statistics include seven top 10s and one pole in 11 starts. His average finish is 13.9.

To be successful at Phoenix, Busch said, "You've got to have a good car, but you've got to have good brakes. You've got to have a good-turning car, and you've got to have a good car that can accelerate off of turn two and go fast down the backstretch. There's a lot involved at Phoenix, but being a day race and being hot and slick, it makes it that much more interesting."

8. Tony Stewart - Unique Hiram
Tony Stewart is headed to Phoenix International Raceway, a track where he has driven in several different racing divisions, and he has been able to capitalize on having strong finishes in the Sprint Cup Series. His statistics as this particular track include but are not limited to the following: one win, nine top 5s, 16 top 10s, average finish of 11.7 (17 races), and fourth best average running position of 11.0.

Smoke was asked about car handling in turns one and two compared to turns three and four, his response was this: “Every type of car that I’ve driven here – from USAC Midgets and Silver Crown cars to Supermodifieds to Indy cars to Nationwide cars and now the Sprint Cup cars – running all those different divisions, the one common variable is the two ends of the track are unique and different from each other. It’s always been a situation where if your car is really good in (turns) three and four, you’re normally a little bit tight in (turns) one and two, and if you get one and two really good, you’re normally a little bit too loose in three and four. You do have to weigh the options and try to find that balance of which end of the track is more important to you. You know you’re not going to be perfect in both ends, and you’ll have to pick one end or the other to get your car really good. I do have a preference, but I don’t tell everybody else that. That’s what having all these years and these laps of experience there does for me. It’s the one secret variable that I try to use to my advantage.”

It is quite evident that Stewart has a lot of confidence as well as experience at this track and he will utilize both those things in order to make a run at capturing the checkered flag.

9. Greg Biffle - Stacie Ball
I will admit that in no way did I think Greg Biffle and the Pit Bulls would improve in the standings until watching the race from Texas Motor Speedway, when he dominated much of the event. How could you not start to believe or hope?

In anticipation of Sunday afternoon's Kobalt Tools 500 race at Phoenix Raceway, Biffle said, “I really can’t wait to go to Phoenix this weekend. I love that track and I love going out west. We’ve run well there but we don’t have a win there yet in the cup car. In order to run well at Phoenix, you really have to work on getting your car to handle well at both ends which can be difficult because they are very different. I would say the only other track that is so different at both ends is Darlington. If we can get that figured out, we should have a really good race in Phoenix. We didn’t quite have the setup where it needed to be for the race there in the spring but I think we’ve learned a few things since then.”

The race in Texas gave me hope. I think this weekend at Phoenix Raceway will be even more exciting than last week, knowing the potential that could happen. His record at Phoenix is not the best, yet in no way does it tell me to give up. Three top fives and 349 laps led might look bad to one person, but to me it is something he will do his best to improve on each time he visits the track.

“We’re taking the same car to Phoenix that we won with at Kansas so if we can just get the setup right this time, we should have a good race. We have run well there in the past but during the spring race, it seemed like none of the adjustments we made seemed to help. We’ve done a lot of testing this year and we’re taking all of that information to try to get the setup where it needs to be this weekend. Last weekend was very disappointing for this team and they’re ready to get back to the track and take the win we should have had in Texas.”

From 11th place to ninth in the matter of one race, how could that get you ready for the second to last race of the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship? How could you be feeling doubtful about a team and so on? All I know is you will not know what happens until you see what happens on the track Sunday afternoon. Good luck, Biff!

10. Clint Bowyer - Amy McHargue
After moving up to 10th place in the Chase standings, Clint Bowyer is within reach of a top-5 season finish with a good showing at Phoenix and Homestead. Clint is 72 points away from fifth spot coming into Phoenix International Raceway this weekend. This will be Bowyer's 11th start at PIR; his previous 10 starts have resulted in a 14.9 average finish. Clint has not made it to Victory Lane at this track but did claim the runner-up position in the 2008 early season race in Phoenix.

Clint's recent successes – a win two weeks ago at Talladega and a comeback seventh-place finish last week at Texas – may offer the #33 Richard Childress Racing Team the confidence they need to perform strongly again this week. Bowyer said his goal after the New Hampshire penalty was to make his way into the top 5; this weekend could bring him closer to making that goal a reality. Clint's last two outings in Arizona have resulted in top-10 finishes. With another top-10 finish, it is likely that Bowyer will continue to move up in the points standings. Watch for a solid performance from Clint Bowyer on Sunday afternoon that could make him the big mover of the week.

11. Kurt Busch - Rebecca Kivak
(Note: Rebecca is stepping in for Katy Lindamood, who is still experiencing Internet connectivity issues)
Kurt Busch has struggled during this year's Chase, finishing outside the top 10 in seven of the eight races so far. Busch lost two spots in the points standings after a 24th-place finish at Texas and now sits 11th, 435 behind leader Denny Hamlin and 38 points out of the 10th spot. 

Though the title is no longer in Busch's sights, the former Cup champion is hoping to turn his luck around and climb back into the top 10 with a win at Phoenix. Busch has one win, four top 5s and eight top 10s at the one-mile flat track. In his last four starts, Busch boasts three finishes inside the top 6. A third-place starting position in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 puts Busch in position to find victory lane once again.

The track also has sentimental value for Busch. He saw his first-ever live Cup race here in 1991 and claimed his 1999 NASCAR Southwest Series title after the season-ending race at Phoenix.

“Phoenix will always be a special track for me and it’s almost like a homecoming each and every time we race there,” Busch said. “So much has changed at the track through the years, with them building the tunnel into the infield and adding all those thousands of seats. But it’s still the same old PIR as for it being the demanding one-mile flat track that I love racing on and the same old PIR that holds so many special memories for me personally."

It's also the track where Busch will strive to get his first Chase win this season.

12. Jeff Burton - Genna Short
Jeff Burton has been impressive at Phoenix. In fall 2009, he completed a run from a starting position of 36th to finish second behind Jimmie Johnson in the Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 last fall. While it is true that he finished a full 1.033 seconds behind Johnson, it was, nonetheless, a spectacular display of talent.

He is ranked 12th among active drivers here which doesn’t say much for what he has been able to accomplish. Although they came a while ago, he does have two wins here and 12 top 10s in 22 starts. His average finish is 11.4, his second best only to Las Vegas. Although he hasn’t led a lap here since his win in 2001, he has gone 18 straight races where he has finished on the lead lap.

“We need to go there and qualify well and run the way we've been running. I feel really good about going there,” he says, optimistically. “I think we have a good brake package, good center of the corner package that really helps our cars. It's one of those tracks that we feel we can go there and run really well.”

There are some really tough parts, though. The sun, for instance, is a factor in how low the visibility can be.

“Honestly all that you can do is don't look at it you just gotta focus on something other than the sun. You gotta look more down, you're not able to drive ahead of you as far as you would without the sun.”

He did finish 25th here in April, which was a race that began in the afternoon but finished under the lights. Even with a less than spectacular finish in the spring, it is clear to see that the sun isn’t the only thing that shines in Phoenix.

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