Phoenix International Raceway poses a unique challenge. Each of its long, sweeping turns is very different from one another. Setting a car up to handle perfectly in every turn is nearly impossible. If a car is good in one turn it is likely to be loose or tight in the other. Teams spend the race making adjustments to find the right balance of speed and handling in each turn. Adjustments are also necessary to keep up with the track, which will get hotter as the race wears on under the strong Arizona sun. Passing on corner entry is the safer bet, but drivers will try to out brake one another. Drivers are able to pass coming out of the turns, but most accidents occur when cars run out of space and pinch each other coming out of the corner exits.
Hendrick Motorsports has won the last five Phoenix races with their drivers. Back-to-back wins at Phoenix are very common with Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton among the many to accomplish the feat. Mark Martin won in April's Subway Fresh Fit 500 leading 157 of the 312 completed laps. Earnhardt and Kurt Busch each led 63 laps that day, but couldn't top Martin.
Drivers to keep an eye on
Kyle Busch | No. 18 Pedigree Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Once again Busch is finding himself to be one of the hottest drivers on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit. He led 232 of the 334 laps that were run in last weekend's Dickies 500, but finished 11th after pitting for fuel. Phoenix is no different of a track for Busch than many others. It is one he performs well at, and his average finish in the last five Phoenix races is 10.0. He has finished eighth in each of the last two late-season races at Phoenix. Ride him while he's hot.
Jeff Burton | No. 31 Caterpillar/Cat Financial Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Last weekend Richard Childress Racing put three of their drivers in the top 10. Jeff Burton was one of those three, and he had a very strong car throughout the race. The finish was Burton's eighth top-10 in 2009 and the second in as many races. Momentum must surely be on his side as the series heads to Phoenix International Raceway, a track where Burton has excelled throughout his 20 career starts at the track. In Burton's latest five efforts there his average finish is 10.4. He hasn't had a finish outside the top 15 since 1995 and has 10 top-10 finishes in his last 16 races at the track.
Kevin Harvick | No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Time to take a chance on Harvick
One top-five and two other top-10 finishes in the last five races is certainly a good way for Harvick to be ending what was a rough season. Harvick should also have a good chance of scoring another top finish this weekend in Phoenix. The desert track has been kind to Harvick in the past, which is no surprise given his abilities on short tracks. His average finish in the last five Phoenix races is 14.4, and if we stretch the measuring stick to the last seven races it jumps to 10.6 with two wins. The 30th-place result Harvick turned in April's in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 looks like an anomaly that Harvick and team should be able to overcome.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
It seems Earnhardt can't buy a good finish regardless of his offer this year. Top results have been few and difficult to come by, but he and the team keep putting themselves in solid positions to take advantage of the luck when it swings their direction. While he may still need luck this weekend in the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500, he might not need that much after such a strong run here in April. Earnhardt's Phoenix record is respectable. His average finish in the last five races is 21.2 with a DNF mixed in. That isn't enough to get anyone excited, but he has scored two top-10 finishes in the last three races there and led 63 laps in April before finishing 31st.
Marcos Ambrose | No. 47 Little Debbie/Kingsford/Clorox Toyota | JTG Daugherty Racing
If Ambrose wasn't forced to stop for fuel late in the Dickies 500 last weekend, he may have been able to challenge for his first win. Instead he finished 15th as Kurt Busch saved fuel until the end. Ambrose's average finish in two career starts at Phoenix International Raceway is 16.0. Ambrose has been a steady and consistent driver for the majority of races this season and has one of the highest finishing averages of any third-tier driver this season. He should be a solid fantasy choice as the season winds down, and certainly at Phoenix International Raceway where he could turn in a top-15 or even top-10 if his performances hold up.
Temper your expectations
Jeff Gordon | No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Gordon not a safe play this weekend
Despite having just one win on his Phoenix International Raceway resume Gordon used to be a dream fantasy driver at the track. In his first 18 races there he only finished outside of the top 10 three times. In his last three races, though, his average finish is 26.3, and he didn't finish on the lead lap in any of those efforts. Through 21 career starts at the track his average is still an impressive 10.9, but his recent trend has been a downward one in the desert. Gordon could turn all of that around this weekend as he works to close the gap on his teammates in the Sprint Cup standings, but the statistical momentum looks to be against him.
Matt Kenseth | No. 17 USG Sheetrock Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Kenseth has earned two top-five finishes in the last four races to give him seven top-fives so far this season. He also has two top-fives in his last five Phoenix starts, but the results have been on a downward trajectory since. His average finish in his last five Phoenix starts is 17.6, but his best finish in the last three was 15th in the 2008 Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. Through his 14 career Phoenix starts, Kenseth has racked up a win, five top-fives and six top-10s. His inconsistency in the current season coupled with his inconsistency at Phoenix International raceway make him somewhat of a risky play for fantasy owners this weekend.
Brian Vickers | No. 83 Red Bull Toyota | Red Bull Racing
Vickers has been struggling since the Chase for the Championship kicked off. He hasn't found the top 10 since the Chevy Rock & Roll 400, the race that helped him into the playoffs. Additionally, Vickers has never been the strongest competitor at Phoenix International Raceway. He counts just one top-five and top-10 finish from his 10 career starts at the track. His average Phoenix finish in the last five events is 23.6. Vickers has struggled in the 2009 Chase and in his career at Phoenix. It would be dangerous to expect him to pull a rabbit out of the hat in the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500.
Juan Pablo Montoya | No. 42 Target Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Montoya was one of the many Chase drivers that could not take advantage of Jimmie Johnson's trouble last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Montoya suffered troubles of his own and ended the race in 37th. At this point in his career Montoya has started five NASCAR Sprint Cup events at Phoenix International Raceway, and contrary to what some would think his strengths are as a driver, his record at this track is not a good one. His average career finish at Phoenix is 21.4 with a best finish of 16th in the 2008 Subway Fresh Fit 500. Past results do not suggest that Montoya will be making up any ground on the Chase leaders this weekend in Phoenix.
Casey Mears | No. 07 Jack Daniel's Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
After a string of improving finishes, Mears has trailed off again in the last two races. He only broke into the top 20 once in the last three races. With a best finish of 11th in his 11 career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, Mears doesn't look likely to rebound to his prior success this weekend. Mears' average finish in the last five Phoenix races is 23.4, which isn't far off of his career average finish at the track of 27.3. At best, Mears appears to perform average on the desert mile, and fantasy owners should exercise caution as a result.