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, Nov. 9 at 2:00 pm EST, Saturday, Nov. 10 at 11:30 am ET, 2:30 pm EST
Qualifying: Friday, Nov. 9 3 at 6:00 pm EST
Race: Sunday, Nov. 11 at 2:00 pm EST
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
Jimmie Johnson | No. 48 Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
From 2007-09 Johnson won four of the five races at Phoenix, including all three of the Chase events. Even though the No. 48 team wasn't won at the site since, Johnson has remained a very impressive performer in the desert. Over the last five races at PIR he's finished outside of the top five just once. In fact, the 14th-place result from last year's postseason is Johnson's lone result outside of the top-five at Phoenix over the last dozen starts. With such an impressive resume it comes as no surprise that his career average running position of 6.4 is nearly four positions better than the next driver.
Brad Keselowski | No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge | Penske Championship Racing
Over the last three races at Phoenix, Keselowski has seen his average running position improve from 15 to 11th to a career-best seventh back in March. That fifth-place finish is even more impressive given the starting position came from the 28th spot. Keselowski is coming off a painful defeat at Texas Motor Speedway, a race he appeared to have won on a several occasions, which has caused him to lose valuable ground to Johnson in the championship standings. With only two races to go Keselowski may need to win out to prevent the crowning of a six-time champion. Keselowski is a quickly improving driver at Phoenix, which may give him an opportunity to stay in the hunt.
Denny Hamlin | No. 11 FedEx Ground Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Back in March, Hamlin led 61 laps at Phoenix and won there for the first time in 14 career starts. Prior to that performance Hamlin had been solid in the desert but did not manage a top-10 finish at the site in the four races held from 2010-11. Even though he's continued to tumble outside of the championship picture over the last several weeks Hamlin is still tied for the series lead this season with five victories and is more than happy to play spoiler this week.
Tony Stewart | No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
Even though Stewart won at Phoenix back in 1999 as a rookie he hasn't returned to victory lane at the site since. However, he's managed to hold an average running position of 12th or better in five straight in the desert, including a career-best second in last year's Chase event. Smoke has been an erratic driver for much of the season but has managed two top-fives in the last three starts. If he puts up good numbers during the practice sessions expect Stewart to keep things rolling on race day.
Greg Biffle | No. 16 Filtrete Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
With four top-10s over the last five races Biffle has found the consistency that had been eluding him at the start of the postseason. At Phoenix he's been a pretty consistent performer, despite not always earning the finish to reflect it. Back in March, The Biff started seventh and finished third in his best finish at PIR since the 2007 season.
Kyle Busch | No. 18 M&M's Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Since 2007 Busch has recorded an average running position of 11th or better in 10 of the 11 races held at Phoenix. In that span he recorded seven top-10 finishes but just a single top-five. Despite not qualifying for the Chase, Rowdy has scored the fourth-most points among all drivers over the last six races thanks to three podium finishes and four top-fives. With a history of undervalued performances at PIR and the recent hot streak that's going unnoticed Busch is a strong value among the top-tier drivers.
Ryan Newman | No. 39 Quicken Loans Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
After years of struggles in the desert Newman left Phoenix with a victory and a runner-up performance in 2010 before finishing fifth in both of the 2011 events. Unfortunately, he didn't have much of a chance to prove what he could do back in March. After his team committed an equipment violation in the pits earlier in the day Newman's chances were further dashed by late contact in the race leaving him to finish 21st and two laps down. Even though Newman is a non-Chaser with a lot of ups and downs this season, don't forget this recent performance at PIR.
Temper your expectations
Clint Bowyer | No. 15 5-hour Energy Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing
Over the last nine races of the season Bowyer had qualified no worse than 12th while earning two wins and has only finished outside of the top-10 once. He heads to Phoenix with a streak of four consecutive finishes of sixth or better during this postseason. However, he's struggled for much of his career at PIR with only five top-10s in 14 career starts. Among all drivers his career average running position of 17.7 is a disappointing 19th.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 Diet Mtn Dew/National Guard Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Since 2009, Earnhardt has only recorded a single top-10 finish at Phoenix in seven starts. In that time his top average running position of 18th has been matched three times. Even though Earnhardt was recently forced to miss a pair of races due to a concussion his 19 top-10s this season are his best marks since 2004. Despite the turnaround these final two races of the season are very unfavorable for NASCAR's favorite driver.