Phoenix International Raceway
Phoenix is generally categorized as an intermediate track. Typically, however, teams that perform well on short tracks have the most success at Phoenix. Indeed some of NASCAR's greatest short track drivers Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have seen Victory Lane in Phoenix. In that vein, one has to look no further than the race two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway for a preview of what we might expect in this weekend's race.
Phoenix poses a unique challenge, as its long, sweeping turns are very different from one another. If a car is good in one turn, it is likely to be loose or tight in the other. Teams spend the race making adjustments to find the right balance of speed and handling in each turn. Adjustments are also necessary to keep up with the track, which becomes hotter as the race wears on. Passing on corner entry is the safest bet. Drivers are able to pass coming out of the turns, but most accidents occur when cars run out of space and pinch each other coming out of the corner exits.
Length: 1.00 miles
Banking: 11 degrees in Turns 1 and 2; 9 degrees in Turns 3 and 4
Leading the Pack
Jimmie Johnson | No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
After a slow start, Johnson appears to have his 2008 season back on track after consecutive top-five finishes the past two weeks. He has moved from 14th to sixth in points over the last four races. Johnson likely will continue his climb this week at Phoenix, where he has a 6.6 career average finish in nine races, which includes a win, four top-fives and seven top-10s. The Phoenix track is short and flat, similar to Martinsville Speedway, a track where Johnson finished fourth two weeks ago. All told, Johnson has the look of a favorite this week, and a win at Phoenix would punctuate the end of his early season slump.
Kevin Harvick | No. 29 Reese's Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Harvick has quietly maneuvered himself into second place in the Sprint Cup Standings with two top-fives and four top-10s in the season's first seven races. Harvick is one of the Sprint Cup's top performers on flat tracks such as Phoenix. His resume on this track includes two wins – he swept both races at the track in 2006 – three top-fives and five top-10s in 10 career starts. Last year, Harvick had an average finish of 8.0 at Phoenix with two top-10s. Like Johnson, Harvick is a solid bet to notch his first win of the season at Phoenix, and anything worse than his fifth top-10 of the season would be a surprise.
Jeff Gordon | No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Like his teammate Johnson, Gordon seemed to have his season back in control coming into last week's race at Texas Motor Speedway. However, Gordon's car was terrible at Texas. He was unable to get up to speed and ultimately finished dead last for only the second time in his career. The 43rd-place finish dropped Gordon to 14th in the points standings. Fortunately for Gordon, the Sprint Cup Series returns to one of his better tracks this week at Phoenix. Gordon's 6.1 average finish over the last seven races is matched only by Johnson. Perhaps most impressively, Gordon has finished in the top 10 in more than 80 percent of his 18 career races at Phoenix. Gordon needs a good run at Phoenix, and he is a great bet to have one.
Tony Stewart | No. 20 Subway Chevrolet | Joe Gibbs Racing
Stewart is notorious for starting the season off slow. Three top-fives, five top-10s and a fifth-place standing in points after seven races may have his competitors a bit concerned. He was ninth in points with one top-five and four top-10s at the same junction last season. Stewart is one of the circuit's top performers at Phoenix. He has a 9.6 average finish over the last seven races at the track, fourth best among all drivers. In 12 career races, Stewart has one win, six top-fives and eight top-10s in the desert. It might be a little early in the season to expect a win out of Stewart, but a top-five is easily within reach.
Carl Edwards | No. 99 Aflac Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Edwards won his third race of the season last week at Texas. However, he stands ninth in the Cup points standings, as he has only one other top-10 this season. The No. 99 team also incurred an early season 100-point penalty for a rule infraction, and Edwards is still without crew chief Bob Osborne, who was suspended. All of Edwards's wins have been at intermediate tracks such as Phoenix. However, Phoenix is as much like a short track as an intermediate, so Edwards may find himself with some competition this week. He hasn't been particular dominant at Phoenix in past seasons. In seven career starts, he has a 16.0 average finish with two top-fives and four top-10s. Edwards could ride his early hot streak to his first win in the desert, but a top-10 is a more reasonable expectation.
Drivers to Keep an Eye On
Martin Truex Jr. | No. 1 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Chevrolet | Dale Earnhardt Inc.
After making the Chase in 2007, Truex is off to a cool start. Truex's 16th-place standing in the points is actually three places higher than last season, when he stood 19th after the Texas race. However, Truex has only one top-10 in 2008, and that has to be a concern. He has been solid, but not spectacular, at Phoenix with a 15.3 average finish and one top-10 in four career races. Truex also has two top-fives in four races at Phoenix's sister track, New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Clearly, the short, flat speedways cater to Truex's strengths. He was having a strong run last week at Texas before losing his engine late in the race. His history suggests another strong run is likely this week in Phoenix.
Kurt Busch | No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge | Penske Racing
Busch and the No. 2 team are off to a slow start in 2008. Busch stands a respectable 15th in the Cup points standings, but he has only one top-10 finish in the season's first seven races. Expectations for 2008 were high after a 2007 season in which Busch and the No. 2 car returned to the Chase after a one-year absence. Busch has been solid at Phoenix. In his last six races, he has posted a 12.2 average finish with a win and three top-10s. A solid performance at Phoenix seems like a must for Busch if he hopes to turn things around and make the Chase. A top-10 this week is a reasonable expectation.
Mark Martin | No. 8 U.S. Army Chevrolet | Dale Earnhardt Inc.
It's no secret that Martin has taken a step back from racing this season. He was 18th in points before sitting out the fifth and sixth races of the season. He has no top-fives and two top-10s in the five races he has run in 2008. Martin has run 22 races at Phoenix in his career; he has one win, eight top-fives and 14 top-10s. His 9.4 career average finish is third best among active drivers. Last year, Martin started 20th and finished 12th in his only race at Phoenix. Martin comes into this week's race on the heels of a top-10 at Texas last week. While Martin's days of winning races may be over, another top-10 at Phoenix would not be surprising.
Ryan Newman | No. 12 Alltel Dodge| Penske Racing
Since winning the season opening Daytona 500, Newman has slowly dropped in the Sprint Cup Standings. Last week, he left Texas in eighth place in the Chase standings behind his best finish (fourth) since the season's opening race. However, a 25-point penalty for rule infractions at Texas dropped him two spots to 10th. Newman has been decent at Phoenix; he has a 17.9 average finish behind two top-fives in his last seven races in the desert. Last season, Newman redeemed a 38th-place finish in the spring race at Phoenix with a fifth-place finish in the fall. Newman should be solid this week in Phoenix, and a top-15 finish is a reasonable expectation.
Brian Vickers | No. 83 Red Bull Toyota | Red Bull Racing
Vickers has been a pleasant surprise in 2008. He qualified for only 23 races in 2007 and entered 2008 outside the top 35 in owner's points, forced to qualify for races on time. Now, after seven races, Vickers finds himself 18th in the points standings and, more importantly, locked in to the field each week. Vickers is a good bet to build on his solid start this week at Phoenix, where he has a 15.3 average finish in seven career races. Last season, Vickers started 22nd and finished 21st in his only race in the desert. A similar run could be expected this week, though a top-15 finish is certainly within his reach.