With restrictor plates and pack racing on the backburner until Talladega, drivers have had a chance to really get down to business this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. The race has already featured the debut of NASCAR's knockout qualifying system, and on Sunday, the drivers and teams will get their first chance to see where they really stack up to the competition.
At least for now, Team Penske has to be smiling after teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano swept the front row in qualifying, and not surprisingly, both drivers saw their stock rise in the final rankings. In fact, qualifying results impacted the fantasy value of several drivers.
Thanks to the flat corners and difficult passing conditions at Phoenix, track position is critical. In 35 races at PIR, only three eventual winners have started outside the top 20 while 17 have started inside the top 10. With that in mind, let's take a look at the final driver rankings for Sunday's The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
The Top 3
1) Jimmie Johnson
Johnson's numbers at Phoenix are head and shoulders above the competition, and his top-five effort in qualifying and strong practice times solidify his status as the top fantasy option this weekend. You may find it interesting that Johnson's average starting position in his four victories at PIR is 4.3. He will start fourth Sunday.
2) Kevin Harvick
He has been red-hot at Phoenix, and after qualifying 13th and dominating the morning practice Saturday, don't expect Harvick to slow down. He has a 4.3 average finish in his last four starts at the track, picking up two wins and a second-place finish. Owners should feel very comfortable building a roster around him this weekend.
3) Denny Hamlin
After a top-15 effort in qualifying, there is no reason to think that Hamlin won't live up to his standards at Phoenix, where Hamlin ranks second only to Jimmie Johnson in terms of average finish. Meanwhile, 13 of his 23 Cup wins have come at flat tracks, including his victory at PIR in 2012.
13) Joey Logano
Logano has been on a rollercoaster ride at Phoenix, and in 10 starts at the track, he has five finishes of 11th or better and five finishes outside the top 20. The lack of reliability hurts his fantasy value, but after a second-place run in qualifying, it is a lot easier to justify taking a chance on him this weekend. If you are willing to take a bit of a gamble, Logano is more than capable of delivering a top-10.
14) Greg Biffle
Although he hasn't been spectacular at Phoenix, Biffle has posted five finishes of 13th or better in his last seven starts at the track. During the stretch, he hasn't finished outside the top 20, and he has picked up two top-five finishes. Given his consistency, Biffle is somewhat of a low-risk option anyway, and after qualifying sixth, one of his better runs at PIR could be on tap.
17) Aric Almirola
He has quietly been enjoying some moderate success at Phoenix, and Almirola seems poised to continue his run this weekend after a top-10 effort in qualifying and a solid showing in practice. He has finished in the top 20 in four straight starts at PIR and has finished in the top 15 in the last two March races at the track.
20) Kyle Larson
The rookie has been enjoying his Cup debut at Phoenix so far, qualifying eighth and posting great practice times. It is also worth noting that he is driving for a No. 42 team that has nine straight top-20s at PIR, including five straight top-15s. Granted, there is no guarantee that the setups that have worked for Juan Pablo Montoya will work for Larson, but you at least have to be intrigued by his potential now that he is starting in the top 10.
26) Casey Mears
Taking a driver from a smaller team like Mears is always risky, but if you need a serious sleeper, it is tough to find one with more upside. He qualified a respectable 18th, which should help him avoid falling way out of contention if the race happens to start with a long green flag run. Meanwhile, he has finished 18th or better twice in the last three March races at Phoenix, including a 14th-place run in this race last year.
Big names outside the Top 10
14) Matt Kenseth
His 19th-place effort in qualifying and poor showing in practice Saturday did nothing to alleviate the concerns I already had about Kenseth. While he hasn't been awful at Phoenix, he has gone 12 starts without logging a top-five at the track. Meanwhile, he has just one top-10 in his last six starts at PIR.
17) Clint Bowyer
Phoenix has been tough on Bowyer, and in addition to his mediocre 17.1 average finish at the track, he has finished 20th or worse five times in his last seven starts. He actually had a decent qualifying effort, but average practice times suggest that another unimpressive performance could be on tap for Bowyer Sunday at PIR.
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.
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