The reconfiguration projection at Phoenix International Raceway included a repave and several modifications to enhance the quality of racing in time for the 2011 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 a bit. For many drivers the biggest adjustment has been the elevation changes caused by the new banking coming into the unique dogleg and through Turn 3.
Practice sessions: Friday, March 1 at 2:00 pm EST, Saturday, March 2 at 12:00 pm ET, 3:05 pm EST
Qualifying: Friday, March 1 at 6:10 pm EST
Race: Sunday, March 3 at 3:14 pm EST
Location: Avondale, Ariz.
Length: 1.0 mile
Turns 1 & 2: 11 degrees
Turns 3 & 4: 9 degrees
Frontstretch: 3 degrees
Backstretch: 9 degrees
Drivers to keep an eye on
Brad Keselowski | No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge | Penske Championship Racing
After solid showings in each PIR race of 2011, Keselowski dialed up his performances in the desert last year. The pilot of the Blue Deuce recorded an average running position of seventh in each Phoenix start, finishing fifth last March and sixth in the Chase. While Keselowski only led for a combined 13 laps, he spent 95 percent of the combined circuits running in the top 15.
Denny Hamlin | No. 11 FedEx Ground Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Hamlin had always been a strong driver on flat tracks like Phoenix, but really cleaned up at PIR last year. He won the March race and was the runner-up in the fall, leading an average of 53.5 laps. In those two races, Hamlin spent all but three laps running in the top 15. After leaving Phoenix, Hamlin's next prime opportunity for fantasy deployment is the sixth race on the schedule, Martinsville Speedway, which is another flat track.
Kevin Harvick | No. 29 Jimmy John's Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Even though Harvick won the Chase event at PIR back in November, he actually ran better in the first Phoenix race. Harvick finished second to the aforementioned Hamlin in that one with an average running position of third and 88 laps led, both race highs. Over the last half dozen PIR races, Harvick has recorded an average running position of 11th or better on five occasions.
Kyle Busch | No. 18 M&M's Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Aside from blowing an engine in the 2011 Chase race, Busch has been an extremely consistent performer at Phoenix. Since loop data was introduced in 2005, Busch has only failed to record an average running position of at least 12th three times. Rowdy finished sixth in this event last year but was outstanding during this third-place performance in the Chase. After capturing the pole, Busch held an average running position of second and led more than 74 percent of the race. He had the race won if not for a caution flag on lap 299 of 300.
Ryan Newman | No. 39 Quicken Loans Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
Since 2010, Newman has a win, a runner-up performance and five top-fives at PIR. However, the underlining loop data isn't as strong as those finishes would suggest. Newman's last two top-fives came with an average running position of 13th, not a stellar figure for a big muscle track like Phoenix. While there's been some good fortune involved, Newman keeps putting himself in position for a strong finish in the desert. Consider Newman a solid middle-tier driver at Phoenix, one of his very best tracks.
Kurt Busch | No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet | Furniture Row Racing
Last year, the elder Busch brother recorded a pair of top-15s at Phoenix with two different teams. In March, he recorded a 15th-place in James Finch's No. 51 car after qualifying 19th. Then in the Chase, Busch started sixth and finished eighth after jumping over to Furniture Row. Back when he drove the Blue Deuce at Penske, Busch was an elite option at PIR. Make him down as a dark horse in his current ride.
Mark Martin | No. 56 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing
With a pair of wins, a dozen top-fives and 21 top-10s in 32 career starts, Phoenix is among Martin's top best venues. Last year, he finished ninth and 10th at PIR. Among all drivers, his average running position of 11.8 ranks eighth. Over the next five races on the schedule, Martin will sit out twice in favor of Brian Vickers: Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway
A.J. Allmendinger | No. 51 Guy Roofing Chevrolet | Phoenix Racing
Allmendinger will make his first of three scheduled starts for James Finch this week, which also include Bristol and Auto Club Speedway. Of those venues, PIR is the best option to use the Dinger as a bottom-tier driver. In eight career Phoenix starts, Allmendinger has started on the front row three times, winning a pole in 2010. The No. 51 team recently announced they'll have Ryan Truex make his Cup debut for them at Martinsville and drive at least one more race. This could be Allmendinger's best opportunity to make an impact in a race all year.
Temper your expectations
Clint Bowyer | No. 15 5-hour Energy Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing
Phoenix is a track that has not been kind to Bowyer. In this event last year, he finished six laps down in 30th position due to multiple tire issues early in the race. Then during the Chase event, Bowyer was running well and working on a potential top-five finish, but was taken out by Jeff Gordon in retaliation to a cut tire. Over the last five Phoenix races, Bowyer has not started better than 14th and owns just one top-10.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Like Bowyer, the five most recent trips to the desert have not been fruitful for Earnhardt. In that time he has yet to qualify better than 22nd and only managed one top-10 finish. Earnhardt was particularly strong at PIR back in 2008, his first year at HMS, but hasn't recorded an average running position better than 18th in the eight starts since.