As unpredictable as restrictor-plate superspeedways can be, short, flat tracks are the opposite. Phoenix International Raceway is no different. In recent years, several drivers found the right handle on these minimally-banked courses and strung together long streaks of top-10s. While the list changes from season to season, patterns emerge, and last year seven drivers earned top-10s in more than half of their starts on this track type.
Phoenix, New Hampshire, Richmond and Martinsville are rhythm courses on which drivers need to hit precise marks. They are not subject to the whim of the draft, and horsepower will take a backseat to handling during the Subway Fresh Fit 500, which allows a special breed to emerge. These are drivers' tracks and experience counts, but that is not only confined to Cup laps -- so dark horses trot alongside thoroughbreds.
Tony Stewart swept the top 10 in all but one race on short, flat tracks in 2011. Last year, Brad Keselowski was perfect, but drivers such as Aric Almirola and Bobby Labonte also had some of their best runs on this course type.
The king of the short, flat tracks has long been Denny Hamlin. On the four minimally-banked courses measuring one mile or less in length, he has accumulated nine wins in 58 Cup starts and scored top fives in more than 50 percent of his races. When he misses, it is not by much, and his results outside the top 20 can be counted on one hand plus a thumb. Last year, Hamlin finished first in the spring and was second in the fall Phoenix race.
Kasey Kahne got off to a slow start in 2012 and the short, flat tracks were no exception. He suffered crash damage at both Phoenix and Martinsville and finished in the 30s, but he came on strong in the middle and end of the season. He finished fifth at Richmond in its first race, won the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire and finished the season with three consecutive top-fives on this track type that included a fourth at Phoenix.
Kevin Harvick is on a mission to prove that the No. 29 is not a lame duck team, and he made an emphatic statement last week at Daytona. He should be able to back it up at Phoenix this week because he came close to sweeping Victory Lane for the second time in his career last year. Harvick finished second to Hamlin in the spring Subway Fresh Fit 500 and won the fall event.
Almirola scored top-10s in both of last year’s Martinsville races, and that track is widely regarded as a little sister to Phoenix. He was not quite as strong on the dusty one-miler, but he was consistent and could be one of this week’s best values with a salary cap in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game of only $16. Almirola finished 12th in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 and was 16th in the Phoenix AdvoCare 500. He also has momentum on his side. The No. 43 had a solid performance in the Daytona 500 to finish 13th, which was his fifth consecutive result of 16th or better stretching back to last year’s fourth at Martinsville.
Mark Martin may not be a dark horse in many players' minds this week, but with his part-time schedule he is easy to overlook. He did not sweep the top 10 in all eight short, flat tracks races last year, but that is most likely because he did not enter them all. Martin finished ninth and 10th in Phoenix’s two races, with an eighth and third at Richmond to underscore his strength. Brian Vickers drove at Martinsville and New Hampshire; he ended the season with top-10s in the fall races on those tracks, so the team has a great set of notes.
It is too soon to know just how well Kurt Busch is going to run in his new ride, but last fall’s results suggest he is worth the gamble. In modestly financed equipment, he ended the 2012 season with four consecutive top-15s that included a 15th at Martinsville and an eighth at Phoenix. If not for crash damage at Daytona, he might have been able to keep that streak alive.
Stewart is one of the recent drivers with a solid record of top-10s on short, flat tracks, but he faltered last year. He finished outside the top 15 in three of eight races and had disappointing results in both Phoenix events with a 22nd in spring and 19th in the fall. In fact, that erratic pattern has defined his recent seasons on this track. Since the start of 2008, he has earned a second- and a third-place finish plus one other top-10, but the remainder of his efforts was poor enough to give him an average result of 15.4.
Together, Stewart and Keselowski reveal how difficult handicapping NASCAR events can be. Stewart’s solid performance in 2011 did not translate to 2012 success just as Keselowski’s generally poor performance in 2011 did not keep him from running strong last year. That also means that fantasy players cannot count on the No. 2 Ford to run strong again this week. Despite sweeping the top 10 at Phoenix last year, the balance of Keselowski’s career on this track has been unimpressive with a previous best of only 15th. That simply is not enough upside to justify acquiring the most expensive driver in the game.
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