Surrounded by a desert landscape, Phoenix International Raceway - a unique, mile-long race track - will play host to the first race of the season held on a flat track. The dogleg between Turns 2 and 3 is a distinctive obstacle, in addition to the different sets of banking on each half of the track. Following this race, PIR will be repaved and reconfigured in time for the penultimate race of the Chase. Among the big changes, a wider front stretch and dogleg, which will have tighter turn radius. Also, variable banking will be added to create multi-groove racing.
While PIR is very different when compared to the other flat tracks (Martinsville Speedway, Richmond International Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway), out-braking the opposition is the key to making passes at all of them. During the first nine stops on the schedule, three are at flat tracks. Finding the right touch and brake package at Phoenix can carry over into early season success elsewhere.
Location: Avondale, Ariz.
Length: 1.0 mile
Turns 1 & 2: 11 degrees
Turns 3 & 4: 9 degrees
Front stretch: 3 degrees
Back stretch: 9 degrees
Drivers to keep an eye on
Jimmie Johnson | No. 48 Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
For owners in allocation formats, it's already time to inject Five Time into your starting lineup. Due to Johnson's dominance at Chase time, some managers may elect to reserve him until the postseason. Let that be their loss as Johnson's 4.9 average finish at Phoenix is his best at any track, which says a lot. In addition to a laundry list of sizzling loop data statistics, Johnson has a streak of nine consecutive top-five finishes at PIR with four victories sandwiched in the middle.
Denny Hamlin | No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Can't go wrong
Finishes of 30th and 12th at PIR from a year ago may cause owners to hesitate on starting Hamlin at site he's typically very good at. The April start was Hamlin's first following knee surgery, and his performance understandably suffered. During the November Chase event, Hamlin led a career-high 190 laps and matched a career-best average running position of third but was burned by fuel mileage. When it comes to getting around flat tracks, very few can match Hamlin's abilities. If you aren't sold on starting the No. 48 just yet, Hamlin is the next best thing.
Kurt Busch | No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge | Penske Championship Racing
Prior to an early on-track incident last April, Busch had held an average running position of third with over 99 percent of laps in the top 15 in three straight starts at PIR. In the Chase, he bounced back with an ARP of eighth and 98.4 percent of laps in the top 15 to record his fourth top-10 finish in five starts. Coming off a fantastic Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, including a two wins in preliminary events and fifth-place result in the Daytona 500, the new Double Deuce is wasting no time in making a name for itself.
Mark Martin | No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Despite starting outside of 20th spot in both Phoenix events last year, Martin used veteran savvy to record finishes of fourth and eighth. In 2009, he scored a victory from the pole and another top-five after qualifying 10th. At a site where track passing can be difficult track, position is often key. It's good to know Martin is able to get it done regardless of where you place him on the grid.
Ryan Newman | No. 39 Tornados Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
No one was better in the desert last year than Newman. He won the first event with an average running position of ninth while spending all of his laps inside the top 15. In the postseason start, Newman was the runner-up posting an even better ARP, seventh. In addition to his terrific performances at Phoenix, Newman was strong on other flat tracks. Consider him the safest middle-tier driver to start this week.
Juan Pablo Montoya | No. 42 Target Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Coming off a career-best sixth-place finish at Daytona last week, Montoya heads to a track that really suits his driving style. Over the last three starts at Phoenix, JPM has indeed been impressive. In the postseason, Montoya was running second when he ran out of fuel after the white flag dropped. In the previous two starts, Montoya finished eighth and fifth with over 95 percent of laps spent in the top 15. Passing at PIR requires finesse and few wheelmen can cut it up like Montoya.
A.J. Allmendinger | No. 43 Valvoline Ford | Richard Petty Motorsports
While Allmendinger has yet to register a top-10 at Phoenix, a site where he owns an average finish of 19.4 in five career starts, he warrants a spot on your provisional lineup. The Dinger's average running position has been 14th or better with over 77 percent of laps in the top 15 on four occasions, all positive signs a career-best finish is brewing. Owners in formats that reward qualifying efforts will certainly want to roster Allmendinger as he started on the pole and outside pole last year.
Martin Truex Jr. | No. 56 NAPA Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing
In 2009, Truex recorded finishes of seventh and fifth at Phoenix while scoring one pole. During last year's postseason event, Truex was en route to another top-10 finish before suffering a late tire issue while on pit road. Bad luck was a constant for this team a year ago. A clean run this week will yield a good finish and nice value for those that roll with the oft-overlooked Truex.
Temper your expectations
Jamie McMurray | No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Since finishing third at PIR in November of 2008, McMurray has yet to spend more than 30 percent of his laps in the top 15 through four starts at the site. That includes his 10th-place performance during last year's Chase. McMurray started fifth, but hit the wall early and was running a lap down until a late debris caution allowed him to sneak back into the picture eventually stealing a good finish. Jamie Mac was not impressive on flat tracks in 2010 and could be overvalued due to last year's overachieving at PIR.
Kasey Kahne | No. 4 Red Bull Toyota | Red Bull Racing
Last year, Kahne's performance was pretty awful on flat tracks. At Phoenix, he did not finish on the lead lap in either start. In three prior races at the site, Kahne had three consecutive top-15 finishes, but you have to go back to 2006 to find a top-10. Intermediates are where both Kahne and Red Bull really shine. Owners would be wise to wait until at least the fifth race of the season, at Auto Club Speedway, to consider starting him.
Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a two-time award finalist. He's also made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts.