Friday, November 11, 2011

Skirts and Scuffs Takes on the Chase: Phoenix is the great unknown remaining

What lies ahead at the newly configured Phoenix International Raceway?
That is the million-dollar question. Credit: PIR
With two races remaining, the end of the Chase is in sight. The Chase is being called a two-man battle though the unknown of Phoenix could be an equalizer in the playing field.

Looking at the battle between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, Edwards has one win and 5 top-5s at PIR while Stewart has one win and 7 top-5s. Pretty equal stats.

Will Stewart's momentum continue or will Edwards be the comeback king? Tune in to see.

1. Carl Edwards - Headed into round two with a slight advantage - By Rebecca Kivak
Top 5s: 5, Top 10s: 9, Wins: 1

It’s time for round two of Carl vs. Tony! Carl Edwards enters Phoenix determined to extend his lead as Chase for the Sprint Cup points leader. Only 3 points ahead of second-place Tony Stewart, Edwards must feel confident returning to the desert, where he broke his 70-race winless streak last year.

In addition to his one win, Edwards has five top 5s, nine top 10s and an average finish of 13.0 in 14 starts at the 1-mile oval. He has back-to-back poles in his last two races here. The driver of the No. 99 Alfac Ford Fusion set the track’s qualifying record of 137.279 mph in February.

Clearly Edwards has been successful at Phoenix. But with the track having undergone a repave and reconfiguration, it’s unknown whether his stats will matter once the green flag drops Sunday. To his advantage, Edwards was one of five drivers who tested the new pavement in August.

Although the new Phoenix is an unknown, one thing is for sure: a win is just what Edwards needs to put more distance between himself and rival Stewart.

“We really think next week at Phoenix has a larger opportunity by a landslide to change the outcome of this Chase. That one will be a very important race,” Edwards said last weekend at Texas. “If Tony and I run 1-2 at Homestead, there's not going to be much points change if we run like we did tonight, but Phoenix has the potential to be huge.”

2.  Tony Stewart (-3) - Proving he does "want it" - By Katy Lindamood
Top 5s: 7, Top 10s: 10, Wins: 1

As the Sprint Cup Series heads to Phoenix for the 35th race of the 2011 season all eyes are on Tony Stewart. Will the driver of the No. 14 continue to dominate the win column as he has in the last eight races? Will he be able to outperform Carl Edwards and come out ahead after Sunday's race?

In the wake of his win at Texas, Stewart is optimistic about the team's chances this weekend at PIR saying, "We're controlling our destiny. We're worried about what we're doing. We're not worried about what they're doing. We're just running our race and that's what we intend to do these next two races. It's theirs to lose now, and we're going to take it if we want it." And Stewart has proven in the last couple of weeks that he does "want it."

Although Edwards is the defending race winner, Stewart is no slouch at Phoenix. In 19 races he has one win, 10 top-10s, and seven top-5s. The driver of the Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevy performed well in February coming home with a seventh place finish after leading 59 laps. Of course those statistics won't mean much this weekend because of the recent repave and altered configuration of PIR.

Stewart has history on his side and he's proven in the last eight weeks that he can perform well under pressure. With only two races remaining things are shaping up for a tight battle at Homestead. Will the two-time series champ be atop the standings after this weekend? If we've learned anything at all this season it's that you don't count anyone out until the checkered flag flies. 

3. Kevin Harvick (-33) - Can Harvick break out of third place and make a run for the title? By Genevieve Cadorette
Top 5s: 4, Top 10s: 8, Wins: 2 

Kevin Harvick is in third position with two races to go in Chase for the Sprint Cup title; he was in the same spot last season. The real question for Harvick is, can he break out of third this year and move to second before the Homestead finale? 

Phoenix is a strong track for Richard Childress Racing, and it's safe to say that Harvick's biggest competition would be the Hendrick Motorsports team that could potentially throw a thorn in Harvick's side. If anyone on HMS does finish higher than him, Harvick could fall out of third to a lower spot. But Harvick shouldn't worry so much about that team; the two guys ahead of him are the real threat and Harvick should focus on finishing before teams 99 and 14. 


With the PIR track reconfigured and repaved, there’s lots of opinions on what racing may be like this weekend. Harvick was one of the teams that tested in Phoenix a few weeks ago. A member of the press asked, “What are your impressions of the track and is there any other track out there that you guys can compare it to?" 

Harvick said, "I don't think right now. It's definitely unique. (Turns) 3 and 4 is definitely not like it was but it is similar to what it was with the new asphalt as far as the radius of the corner. The exit of Turn 2 is a lot different and the back straightaway is definitely different. They did a good job by designing the track so the fans can see the cars and I think if the second groove comes in it will be a really good race. That's really the only concern I've heard from anybody and the only concern that we have is the whether the second groove comes in and if it does its going to be a good race."

Harvick will be racing the Budweiser "Bowtie" this weekend with a special paint scheme to promote the new car design for Budweiser. It’ll be the same paint scheme Harvick had last September in Chicagoland.

4. Matt Kenseth (-38) Looking forward to the differences at PIR - By Melissa Wright
Top 5s: 5, Top 10s: 8, Wins: 1

Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 Crown Royal Ford Fusion, heads into Phoenix just 38 points out of the lead this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway for the Kobalt Tools 500. He has an average starting position of 21.4, an average finishing position of 17.2 (18th best) and a driver rating of 84.6 (14th best) in 18 starts. At Phoenix, Keseth has one win, five top-5s and eight top-10 finishes, and he has also led 162 laps.

Kenseth's thoughts going into the last race in the Chase before the season finale next weekend at Homestead: “Phoenix is going to be very different this weekend than the track we’ve been used to running in the past. Basically, we’ll look over our notes from the test and start from there to work on our set-ups throughout practices. The new layout of the track is very unique, so it’s going to be interesting for the fans to watch and for us to drive. This weekend is kind of an unknown for everyone. We got to test there but the track was so slick and there was only one lane, but I know that they’ve been working to widen the groove out, so I’m looking forward to seeing how different it is this weekend.” 

5. Brad Keselowski (-49) Still hope with 2 races remaining – By Amanda Ebersole
Top 5s: 0, Top 10s: 0, Wins: 0

Starting the Chase as a wildcard, Brad Keselowski has proven that the title does not fit him anymore.  Moving up to 5th in the points with just two races remaining, Keselowski has even surpassed his own expectations. “It's everything I hoped for and everything I thought we were going to see in the Chase. I feel very lucky to have four top fives so far and then we've had four bad finishes, four finishes of 16th or worse. That's been tough, but that's part of the deal. I'm very proud to have a seat at the dance. It's been good."

Heading to Phoenix is going to present some challenges for Keselowski and the No. 2 team. To date, Keselowski has not had much success at PIR. An average running position of 26.3 and an average finish of 27.5 leaves Keselowski with room for improvement.   

6. Jimmie Johnson - Can he salvage a top 3 in points? - By Lacy Keyser
Top 5s: 11, Top 10s: 14, Wins: 4 

With four wins, Phoenix could be the track to give JJ his mojo back. Sitting 6th in the standings, Johnson needs a win to salvage some points. For the five-time champ, Johnson, who has usually exceled at the Chase format, has not had the best of luck as of late. With just two races remaining, I don’t think anyone - and I mean anyone - should count Johnson out at a track that he has had great success at. I think you will see a big shakeup in the Chase!

With an average running position of 5.4 and an average finish of 4.8, Johnson is a force to be reckoned with at PIR. 

Jimmie Johnson spoke on his concerns regarding Phoenix: “My two times being there, you are chasing one balance of the race car and then finally the track rubbers up and you have to back all of that out and then you are finally on the path that you need to be on. I think we are going to be struggling when we unload, what do you unload with? When does the track show up and where do you build faith in your set up and what direction to go in.” 

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-79) 2011 has yielded many gains for Earnhardt Jr. – By Amanda Ebersole
Top 5s: 4, Top 10s: 8, Wins: 2

For Junior Nation, 2011 has been a year of great hope. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is revitalized and it shows with his performance on track. With just two races left in the Chase, Earnhardt is 7th in the standings and just behind his teammate Jimmie Johnson but ahead of HMS teammate Jeff Gordon.

Headed to PIR, Earnhardt Jr. has an average running position of 16.3 and an average finish of 18th.

“It should be interesting. I would not be too critical on the (Phoenix) track, the first go round. If it is a great race, then fine, if it is less than stellar race I would not be too critical about it. It is a new surface, and it is going to take a little bit of work,” said Earnhardt Jr. of the worries about the newly repaved surface at PIR. 

8. Jeff Gordon (-81) Gaining ground in the points with two races to go – By Holly Machuga
Top 5s: 10, Top 10s: 18, Wins: 2

With an average start of 9.9 and an average finish of 10.0, Jeff Gordon has proven successful at Phoenix International Raceway. The 20-year veteran has struggled this time around in the Chase, but things are looking up, as he gained two spots heading into the second to last race. A fourth win in the season could boost the 24 team further up the board. 

9. Kurt Busch (-87) Waiting to see how Phoenix "shakes out" - By Lacy Keyser
Top 5s: 4, Top 10s: 10, Wins: 1

Kurt Busch has not had the Chase he wanted - one bad race after another has caused the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil driver to fall out of the contention for the title. But that doesn’t stop Busch from one thing – winning.

"It's just a totally different track," said Busch as he spoke on the reconfigured PIR. "After the testing we all did there, we're coming back convinced there's only going to be one groove and it won't be very wide. Restarts will be treacherous. We'll see how it shakes out. It will be a ‘fill the tank up with gas and ride it to the end' situation with how the tires did not and likely will not be wearing out there this weekend.”

Busch spoke on his Chase season, saying "Even though we won the race at Dover during the Chase, we just haven't had the consistency we needed and haven't put the numbers on the board that we needed to," said Busch, who has a 10.4 average start and 16.9 average finish during the eight Chase races. "Getting caught up in the crash at Talladega pretty much wiped out any chance of a championship run and we've been trying to get it turned around since.”

10. Denny Hamlin (-99) Struggling to make it to Las Vegas come season's end - By LJ Cloud
Top 5s: 5, Top 10s: 6, Wins: 0 

Heading into the desert at Phoenix International Raceway, Denny Hamlin has to hope things go better for him than they did at Texas Motor Speedway where he finished 28th last Sunday. Despite Kyle Busch being completely out of the race, Hamlin remains one point ahead of him, squarely in 10th position.

So far this season Hamlin's managed five top 5s and 13 top 10s along with his win at Michigan. With an average finish of 16.3, he's struggling to keep his seat at the banquet. 

While he hasn't won at Phoenix, Hamlin's scored five top 5s, six top 10s and one pole in his 12 races at the 1-mile oval and has an average finish of 11.6. 

11. Kyle Busch (-100) Will “Rowdy” be allowed to finish out the last two races piloting the No. 18 or watch from the pit box or his sofa? – By Unique Hiram
Top 5s: 2, Top 10s: 8, Wins: 1

Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota, is heading to Phoenix International Raceway where he has been very competitive on this 1-mile, low-banked, tri-oval racetrack. In addition to the statistics listed above, he also has the following: series-high quality passes (387), second most laps ran inside the top 15 (3,518), fifth best average running position (11.0) and average finish of 12.9 in 13 races.

Busch has been dealing with the fallout from his bad decision to intentionally wreck NASCAR Camping World Truck Series four-time champion Ron Hornaday Jr. on Lap 14 in last week’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.  He has been fined ($50K), placed on probation (until 12/31/11) and still dealing with the ramifications of what his sponsors might decide to do in regards to his behavior.

According to a report by USA Today, Busch’s primary Sprint Cup sponsor M&M’s had this to say about his actions: "The recent actions by Kyle Busch are not consistent with the values of M&M's and we're very disappointed," the statement read. "Like you, we hold those who represent our brand to a higher standard and we have expressed our concerns directly to Joe Gibbs Racing."

It was announced late Thursday that Busch will pilot the No. 18 for the final two races of the season with Interstate Batteries as the sponsor. M&M's will return as a sponsor in 2012.

Stay tuned …  

12. Ryan Newman (-103) - Motivated by Stewart and special paint scheme - by Katy Lindamood
Top 5s: 6, Top 10s: 6, Wins: 1

At the bottom on the standings Ryan Newman has been statistically eliminated from contention, but that doesn't mean the team plans to roll over and play dead the last two weekends of the season. If anything, they are motivated by the recent wins of teammate and owner Tony Stewart and look forward to finishing the 2011 on a good note.

In 18 races at PIR, Newman has one win, six top 5s and six top-10s. This weekend the No. 39 will sport a special paint scheme in honor of Veterans Day. Featured on the Army Chevrolet will be the faces of more than 300 Vietnam veterans who proudly served their country. Of the scheme Newman said, "History tells us that many who served in Southeast Asia were not properly recognized upon their return. It will be a sincere privilege and inspiration for our race team to have the Army Strong Vietnam Solders ride along with me in the Phoenix race."




Who will win the duel in the desert? Stay tuned to Skirts and Scuffs for all the latest.
Check back with us Monday for a recap of how the Chase drivers fared.

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