Following the second race of the season, Phoenix International Raceway underwent a repave and several modifications to enhance the quality of racing. The front straightaway has been widened and the famed dogleg has been reconfigured to eventually allow side-by-side racing. While the corners remain similarly shallow to the old setup, variable banking has been installed to also open things up. Perhaps the biggest adjustment for the drivers will be the elevation changes caused by the new banking coming into the dogleg and through turn 3.
In addition to the results from the two-day open testing session at PIR held in early October, owners facing prequalifying deadlines will benefit from two Friday practice sessions before qualifying on Saturday. The new racing surface will contain a lot of grip but may need time for second lane to wear in. If that alternative groove does not open up, passing will be very difficult and place a huge premium on starting position.
Location: Avondale, Ariz.
Length: 1.0 mile
Turns 1 & 2: 10-11 degrees
Turns 3 & 4: 8-9 degrees
Front stretch: 3 degrees
Back stretch: 10-11 degrees
Drivers to keep an eye on
Tony Stewart | No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
Since loop data was introduced in 2005, Stewart's career average running position of 10.4 at Phoenix ranks fourth among all drivers. In those 13 starts, he's collected three runner-up performances and half a dozen top-10s. While Stewart's torrid postseason has seen four wins in eight races, his recent performance at PIR could actually cause him to be undervalued, if only slightly. Since 2008, Stewart has only two top-10s in seven starts in the desert despite an average running position of 10th or better on four occasions. During the open testing sessions in October, Stewart was the fastest driver on the second and final day.
Kevin Harvick | No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
In the last three races at PIR, Harvick held an average running position of either 10th or 11th with more than 85 percent of his laps spent in the top 15. During that time, his finish improved from 13th to sixth or fourth. Aside from taking damage at Talladega Superspeedway, Harvick has been a solid performer in the Chase. He was also the third fastest driver on the second day of the open test. Currently 33 points out of first place with two races remaining, Harvick will need misfortune to strike the two drivers in front of him to have a shot. Regardless, expect a championship-type performance.
Jimmie Johnson | No. 48 Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Even though Johnson's hopes for a sixth consecutive championship are now extremely bleak, he's a top-five, winning machine at Phoenix. Dating back to 2006, Johnson has registered 10 consecutive top-five finishes with four victories. In addition, his career average running position of 5.4 is more than four positions better than the nearest driver, teammate Jeff Gordon. The PHX master doesn't appear to have any issue with the tweaked layout. Johnson's speed ranked second during the final day of testing.
Ryan Newman | No. 39 U.S. Army Veterans Day Tribute | Stewart-Haas Racing
Despite the explosive performances from car owner and teammate Tony Stewart, Newman's postseason has not been so rosy. Through eight starts, he's collected just three top-10s with three other results outside of the top 20. After experiencing a drought, Newman has since rattled off three straight top-fives in the valley of the sun, including a win and a runner-up performance last year. While Newman had speed early in the test sessions, ranking second on the first day, he did drop to 12th on day two. Closely monitor the No. 39 on Friday to see where Newman stands.
Kasey Kahne | No. 4 Red Bull Toyota | Red Bull Racing
Over the last six races of the season, Kahne has scored the second-most points shooting from 20th to 14th in the standings. From 2007-2010, he failed to record a top-10 finish at Phoenix in eight chances. However, back in February, Kahne qualified a career-best third and finished sixth. With the future of Red Bull Racing in serious question and Kahne heading to Hendrick Motorsports next season, one might think the performance and focus of the team would suffer so late in the season but the exact opposite has been true.
A.J. Allmendinger | No. 43 WIX Filters Ford | Richard Petty Motorsports
Last year, Allmendinger qualified on the first row in each of the two Phoenix races. Back in February, he finished a career-best ninth at the site while recording an average running position of at least 13th for the fourth consecutive time. Allmendinger has been modestly successful in recent weeks with four finishes of 11th or better in the last six starts. During the October test session, Allmendinger was the quickest Ford driver, registering fifth on the second day.
Martin Truex Jr. | No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing
After scoring average running positions of 10th and 11th in the last two Phoenix races, Truex managed finishes of only 15th and 14th, respectively. If he can carry some momentum, which is not always a given with this team, Truex could prove to be a pleasant surprise. Despite driving for a different crew chief each week, he has collected three straight top-10s as MWR begins to focus on 2012 as new acquisitions Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin will join Truex to raise expectations. During the Phoenix testing sessions, No. 56 was the fastest Toyota each day.
Jeff Burton | No. 31 Caterpillar Global Mining Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
After finishing second at Talladega, following to a draft and pass by teammate Clint Bowyer in the closing moments, and a sixth-place result at Martinsville Speedway, Burton nearly stole last week's race at Texas Motor Speedway on fuel mileage. While he was non-factor in the February race at Phoenix, Burton was the fastest driver on the first day of testing and sixth the second day. If he displays similar speed in the Friday practice sessions, Burton could be a worthy deep sleeper option.
Temper your expectations
Kyle Busch | No. 18 M&M's Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Following an intentional wreck of Ron Hornaday Jr. in the Camping World Truck Series, Busch was parked for the subsequent Nationwide and Sprint Cup events at Texas. Rowdy was also placed on probation for the rest of the season. However, it's still unclear if JGR or sponsor Mars, Incorporated will bring down any further punishment. While Busch finished as the runner-up at Phoenix earlier in the season, any owner facing an early deadline will want to look elsewhere in the event he sits out another race.
Mark Martin | No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Over the last three races at PIR, Martin has finished 13th or better with a pair of top-10s despite an average running position no better than 15th. The veteran began the Chase with a ninth-place result but has only tallied one more top-10 in the last seven races. Considering Martin has been something of an overachiever on this track and his lack of recent postseason success, owners should take a pass.
Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a three-time award finalist. Over the years, he's 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. He's also captured the fantasy football championship in the KFFL staff league twice.