Fantasy NASCAR Practice Recap: Subway Fresh Fit 500
When Mark Martin finally decides to call it quits as a driver, he may want to retire to Phoenix. After all, he has made the track his home over the course of his career to the tune of a 9.1 average finish in 32 starts. The veteran is back at it this weekend, and after Martin grabbed the pole Friday, he followed it up by topping the charts in the opening practice session Saturday. Considering the only time he finished outside the top 20 at PIR was in the track's inaugural event back in 1988, Martin was already one of the safer fantasy options available. After spending the weekend lighting up the stopwatch, the two-time Phoenix winner could deliver a top-five and maybe more Sunday.
Kyle Busch put down the second-fastest lap of the session, and based on his recent runs at Phoenix, he could deliver a strong run for owners, as well. Busch has finished sixth or better in three of his last four starts at the track, including a third-place run on the new configuration last fall. Busch hasn't won at PIR since his rookie year, but with 10 top-15s and eight top-10s in his last 12 starts at the track, he is still worthy of a roster spot.
Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five, and of the three, Johnson and Harvick are the heavy hitters. After all, Johnson leads all drivers with four victories and a 6.7 average finish at Phoenix. Not to mention the fact that he has finished in the top five in 12 of his 19 starts at the track and has finished outside the top 15 only once. Meanwhile, Harvick is coming off a season when he finished second at Phoenix in March and won the fall. His three career wins at PIR are his most at any track at the Cup level.
Johnson and Harvick were also two of three fastest cars that ran at least 10 consecutive laps in the session with Johnson posting the best average speed. The third driver to crack the top three was again Bowyer. He is an interesting fantasy option because of an unimpressive 17.7 average finish at Phoenix. That being said, the Michael Waltrip Racing cars appear to have plenty of speed this weekend, and Bowyer could be headed for one of his stronger showings at Phoenix.
In Happy Hour, Martin and Kyle Busch once again paced the field while defending series champ Brad Keselowski posted the third-fastest lap. He was rock solid at PIR last year, notching finishes of sixth and fifth. Plain and simple, the guy was a steady source of top-10s for more than half the season in 2012. While we are still getting a feel for which drivers will have success this season, there really isn't a safer pick than last year's most consistent driver, especially when he cracking the top five on the practice charts.
Carl Edwards and Bowyer rounded out the top five in the final session, and this weekend's race could tell fantasy owners a lot about what to expect from Edwards in 2013. After being arguably the biggest bust of last year, a strong showing at PIR would be a sign that he is ready to turn things around. He does have a history of success, winning once and finishing 11th or better in 12 of his 17 starts. The safe strategy would be to take a wait-and-see approach with Edwards this weekend, but if you want to be aggressive early in the year, taking a chance on Edwards could pay off big time.
Other drivers that came to life in Happy Hour included Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon. Kahne posted the eighth-fastest lap and the fourth-best 10-lap average speed, and with three finishes of sixth or better in his last three starts at Phoenix, he has top-five potential this weekend. Gordon on the other hand posted the second-best 10-lap average speed, and with finishes of second, first and eighth in the last three March races at Phoenix, owners should feel comfortable inserting him into their lineups this weekend.
Kurt Busch also had a solid showing in the final session, and his times may have been the most important. He was forced to go to a backup car after a wreck in qualifying, but he still managed to post the sixth-fastest lap and the third-best 10-lap average speed out of 24 cars. He may not be able to win the race starting from so deep in the field, but Busch could still provide a solid top-15 finish for owners.
The big loser of the afternoon was Denny Hamlin. The defending race winner has been one of the best in the business at Phoenix, compiling a 10.3 average finish and eight finishes of sixth or better in 15 career starts at the track. However, the No. 11 team made an engine change Saturday, and Hamlin will be forced to give up his top-10 starting spot and drop to the rear of the field. History says winning from the back will be next to impossible, and while he could still rally for a top-five finish, owners would probably want to save Hamlin for another day in survivor-type formats.
Happy Hour Speeds (sorted by Best Lap)
10-Lap Average Speeds (must run 10 consecutive laps)
Second Practice Speeds (sorted by Best Lap)
10-Lap Average Speeds (must run 10 consecutive laps)
About Brian Polking
Racing has been part of Brian's life ever since he can remember, and he spent his childhood at dirt tracks throughout Ohio and Kentucky watching his father race. NASCAR naturally became his favorite sport, and he has been following the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series for most of his life. Brian majored in journalism and economics at Ohio State University and becoming a sports writer has always been his dream. Although he has covered everything from minor league baseball to the NCAA tournament, his passion has always been NASCAR. Brian has served as a NASCAR writer for a variety of sites, eventually becoming head editor of the NASCAR section for Fanball.com. His knowledge of NASCAR comes from his life-long love of racing, and he tries to add a personal touch to every article he writes. Brian is always up for talking NASCAR with anyone that wants to. Brian joined KFFL's team in 2011.Follow @kffl_racing
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