Last year Phoenix International Raceway underwent a repave and several modifications to enhance the quality of racing in time for its late season Chase race. The front straightaway was widened and the famed dogleg reconfigured to allow side-by-side racing. While the corners are still similarly shallow to the old setup, variable banking was installed to open things up. For many drivers the biggest adjustment was the elevation changes caused by the new banking coming into the dogleg and through Turn 3.
Practice sessions: Friday, March 2 at 2:30 pm ET, 5:30 pm ET
Qualifying: Saturday, March 3 at 2:30 pm ET
Race: Sunday, March 5 at 2:30 pm ET
Location: Avondale, Ariz.
Length: 1.0 mile
Turns 1 & 2: 10-11 degrees
Turns 3 & 4: 8-9 degrees
Frontstretch: 3 degrees
Backstretch: 10-11 degrees
Drivers to keep an eye on
Tony Stewart | No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
Last November saw Stewart lead a race high 160 laps at Phoenix with an average running position of second while never dropping lower than ninth at any point. Smoke would finish third on the redesigned track, his first top-five in the desert since a runner-up performance in April of 2009. Stewart finished seventh in the February event, leading 59 laps and matching two other drivers with the best average running position of the race, fifth. While he doesn't hold the most impressive resume at PIR, Stewart's impressive runs from a year ago hold a lot of weight.
Carl Edwards | No. 99 Subway Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
After capturing the pole and winning the 2010 Chase race at Phoenix with an average running position of second, Edwards scored the pole position once again last February but crashed early to keep him out of contention. Following the track alternations for the race last November, Edwards wasted no time adjusting. He finished as the runner-up, ran third on the average and spent all 312 laps running ninth or better.
Jimmie Johnson | No. 48 Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
In a span of 10 races from November of 2006 through February of 2011, Johnson won four races at Phoenix and never finished out of the top five. That run would end after struggling on the restyled track with a 14th-place finish and off the lead lap. Following a wreck in the opening moments of the Daytona 500 on Monday night, Johnson will be possessed with getting back to his dominating ways in the desert.
Ryan Newman | No. 39 WIX Filters Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
Over the last two years, no driver has scored more points than Newman at Phoenix, who recorded top-five finishes in all four events. In 2010 he won the April race and was the runner-up in November. Newman finished fifth in each PIR event last year and appeared unfazed by the redesign. Despite a lot of uneven results in his first 15 races at Phoenix, perhaps no one is better at the site right now than Newman.
Kasey Kahne | No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Last year was a big turnaround for Kahne at PIR who, after failing to record a top-10 in six races from 2007-10 at the site, finished sixth in February and won on the new surface in the Chase event. Kahne ran well in the Daytona 500 but crashed late. A Hendrick car driven by Jeff Gordon won the first PIR race of 2011 and several HMS machines have performed very well in the desert over the years giving Kahne a shot for two in a row.
A.J. Allmendinger | No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge | Penske Championship Racing
In seven career starts at Phoenix, Allmendinger has held an average running position of 14th or better on six occasions. He recorded his first two top-10s at the site last year and finished a career-best sixth in the Chase race following the redesign. In formats that reward qualifying efforts, Allmendinger scored one pole and two outside poles in the last four sessions at PIR.
Mark Martin | No. 55 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing
Dating back to 1988, Martin has competed in 30 Cup races at Phoenix and finished outside of the top 20 only once, his first career start at the site. Since loop data was introduced in 2005 Martin's average running position of 12.2 ranks seventh among all drivers at PIR. In last year's Chase race David Reutimann, who Martin replaced at MWR, finished seventh with an average running position of eighth. With Martin's long line of success a similar result could be very much in the cards.
Brendan Gaughan | No. 33 South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
The 36 year old Gaughan has not made a start in the Cup series since crashing on the second lap of the 2010 Chase race at PIR. Aside from that one-shot start Gaughan's only experience in the series came as a full-time driver in 2004. Over the years, Gaughan has been a consistent driver in the Nationwide and Truck Series so he's capable of a good performance this week in high-level RCR equipment. Owners looking for an alternative bottom-tier driver could catch a decent bargain.
Temper your expectations
Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Among all drivers in the field, Earnhardt's career average running position at PIR ranks just 18th. While he did win in the desert in 2003 and again in 04, Earnhardt has only collected one top-10 in the last six starts. Coming off an impressive runner-up performance in the Daytona 500, it's important to avoid overvaluing Earnhardt this week or his outlook of the rest of the season.
Kurt Busch | No. 51 Phoenix Construction Chevrolet | Phoenix Racing
While the elder Busch brother ranks second among drivers in average running position and fourth in Driver Rating at PIR, the equipment he now pilots makes him a driver to avoid for the time being. Last year, cars owned by James Finch finished 23rd in February with Bill Elliott and 29th in November under Landon Cassill. While Busch is a big upgrade behind the wheel, cracking the top 20 will most likely present a challenge.
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.