Surrounded by a desert landscape, Phoenix International Raceway, a flat, mile-long race track, will play host to the season's first night race. The length of the race has been extended by 100 km. (63 laps) opening the door for new pit strategies from what we've seen in the past. The dogleg between Turns 2 and 3 is a unique obstacle, in addition to the different sets of banking on each half of the track. PIR will be the second consecutive race held on a flat track, so momentum could factor in.
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
Jeff Burton | No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
When it comes to consistency at Phoenix, few drivers can match Burton. You have to go back to 1996 to find Burton's name outside of the top 15 at PIR. Last week at Martinsville Speedway, another flat track, while running in third, Burton had a tire go down in the late stages of the race. He had to settle for 20th, but Burton held an average running position of third and led 140 laps. That performance coupled with the overall strength of RCR and Burton's long run of success in the desert makes for a sunny fantasy forecast.
Joey Logano | No. 20 Home Depot Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Last year, in his first two career Cup starts at Phoenix, Logano finished 21st in both outings. However, success in the lower ranks of NASCAR suggests better days are ahead for him. In 2007, Logano won a race at PIR in the K&N Pro Series West Series. In the Nationwide Series, Logano finished 10th in the fall of 2008 and fourth in last year's spring race at PIR. He also collected a runner-up finish at Martinsville, another flat track, a week and a half ago, showing increased comfort on this track type.
Martin Truex Jr. | No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing
Logano comfortable on flat tracks
In last year's fall race at PIR, Truex captured the pole and finished a career-best fifth at the track. In four the last five races at PIR, Truex has finished in the top 10, the exclusion being an early overheating issue in the fall of 2008. This season, Truex has been no stranger to setbacks, but has held an average running position of 12th in each of the last three races. He is also coming off a season-best fifth-place result at Martinsville. It's been a bumpy season, but Truex brings a lot of NA-NA-NAPA Know How on getting around Phoenix.
Brad Keselowski | No. 12 Abyss Dodge | Penske Championship Racing
In last year's fall race at PIR, Keselowski finished 37th in a Penske ride. Like Logano, you have to look deeper at the body of work to find some rich fantasy value. In the Nationwide Series, Keselowski owns an average finish of 15.7 in six career starts at PIR, finishing in the top five in both events last year. Keselowski also finished sixth in a 2008 Camping World Truck Series race. On numerous occasions this season, his team has been willing to gamble on staying out to gain track position. With some uncertainty on how the longer race format will affect things, such a call this week could pay off big for Kes and adventurous fantasy owners.
Sam Hornish Jr. | No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge | Penske Championship Racing
Last year at PIR, Hornish finished a career-best ninth at the track in the spring race and a respectable 17th in the fall. In each start, Hornish spent over 23 percent of his laps in the top 15. At Martinsville at the end of March, Hornish finished a season-best 13th. In several of the prior races this season, Hornish experienced unfortunate equipment issues right after cracking the top 10. No stranger to victory lane at Phoenix, Hornish compiled a 9.7 average finish with two wins during his IndyCar days from 2000-05. Assuming things under the hood don't fail him, Hornish is good bottom-tier start.
Temper your expectations
Matt Kenseth | No. 17 Crown Royal Black Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Back in 2002, Kenseth won at Phoenix, but since then success has been hard to come by. In the 12 starts since, Kenseth has only four top-10 finishes. The last two such finishes were top-five results during the 2007 season. Things come undone from there. He has finished outside of the top 25 in each of the last two spring races, with 15th- and 18th-place finishes in the following fall races. In the last four years at the track, Kenseth has an average running position of 19.4 and has only spent 44 percent of the total laps in that stretch in the top 15. We were correct to bet against him at Martinsville (thanks to Jeff Gordon, by the way) and are willing to sit him again this week.
Brian Vickers | No. 83 Red Bull Toyota | Red Bull Racing
Back in 2006, Vickers had decent finishes of 13th and 11th at PIR. In his five starts since, Vickers has only one finish in the top 20, including crashes in each of the last two fall races. This season, Vickers has two top-10s in the last three races, including a sixth-place finish at Martinsville, his best finish there. Still, the streak of underwhelming performances and wrecks at PIR suggests Vickers is a driver to pass by.
Ryan Newman | No. 39 Tornados Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
Opt for caution with Vickers
One driver that has been unable to translate good performance from one flat track to another is Newman. Last year at Phoenix, coming off top-10 finishes at Martinsville, Newman finished 16th and 20th in the desert. This year, Newman enters the desert with a fourth-place finish at Martinsville. In 15 career starts at PIR, Newman has only three top-10 finishes (all three were top-five finishes), but only one since 2005. Clearly, Newman is a boom-or-bust play this week. Given how inconsistent he's run this season, take the latter.
David Reutimann | No. 00 Best Western Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing
With two top-10 finishes at Phoenix last year, Reutimann is bound to show up on some sleeper lists this week. With two DNFs in his last three races (overheating and engine issues), Reutimann carries a lot of risk. At Martinsville, he looked strong in the early going before losing the car in a spin. A late tire issue forced Reutimann to the pits contributing to his 28th-place finish. There are certainly worse options than the double zero this week, but Reutimann has yet to shake off his snake-bitten start to 2010.
Juan Pablo Montoya | No. 42 Target Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Yet another week of equipment problems for last year's breakout driver. At Martinsville, overheating the brakes led to blowing the right-front tire not once, but twice. Add a blown engine and the number of wrecks he's been involved in, one by his own teammate, and it's obvious Montoya can't catch a break. In last year's fall race at PIR, Montoya finished a career-best eighth at Phoenix. Back in 2008, he finished 16th and 17th. Until JPM finds a way to stay out of trouble in consecutive races this season, we may see his name on this list several more times.
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.