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Qualifying the Chasers: Phoenix

November 12, 2011, Bill Kimm, NASCAR.com

Kenseth takes pole; Stewart, Edwards to start eighth and ninth, respectively

Matt Kenseth (Qualified first) -- Kenseth is 38 points out of the lead and it's basically due to three bad races. Aside from Chicago, Talladega and Martinsville, Kenseth has been one of the best in the Chase with five finishes of sixth or better. Kenseth comes to a Phoenix track that has been average for him, with eight top-10s and 10 finishes outside the top 10. Unfortunately for Kenseth, five of those outside the top 10 have come in the past seven races. However, he's led laps in the past four Phoenix races and in the Chase, he definitely does better than the spring. Kenseth's average finish in Chase races since 2006 is 11.7, compared to his overall average finish of 17.2.

Tony Stewart (Qualified eighth) -- Stewart won his fourth race of the 2011 Chase with a dominating performance at Texas. He's now three points back and looks to make history with a championship. No driver has started ninth or worse in the Chase and won the title, nor has a driver entered the Chase winless and won the championship. Stewart has some impressive numbers at Phoenix, but recently it's been a little bit of a struggle. Smoke lone victory came way back in 1999, but he does have three runner-up finishes. He has a stout 11.7 average finish, but his past three Chase races at Phoenix have been some of his worst. He's finished 22nd, 25th and 17th and in a crazy stat, Stewart has led just one lap in a fall race at Phoenix compared to 385 laps led in the spring.

Carl Edwards (Qualified ninth) -- Edwards kept his top-11 streak intact at Texas with an impressive second-place run. Unfortunately for Edwards, he lost five points off his lead. Going into Phoenix, Edwards has a slim three-point advantage. At Phoenix, Edwards won this race a year ago and led 93 laps. In the spring race, Edwards led 21 of the first 60 laps before he and Kyle Busch got together and Edwards ended up in the wall. Edwards has a win, five top-fives and nine top-10s in 14 starts. He has an average finish of 13, which seems strong but is only seventh-best among Chasers. Edwards has two finishes of 30th or worse at Phoenix, and both have come in Chase races (2004, 2007).

Brad Keselowski (Qualified 12th) -- It's a tale of two seasons for Keselowski in his brief history at Phoenix. Unfortunately for Keselowski, the worse of the two seasons is the one we are currently in. Keselowski has finishes of 16th and 15th in his two spring starts at PIR. In the fall, he's finished 37th and 42nd, crashing out of this race last year. Keselowski has just one lead lap finish in his four Phoenix starts, and after finishes of 17th at Martinsville and 24th at Texas, Keselowski is going to need a huge day to stay in the hunt of his first Cup title.

Jimmie Johnson (Qualified 16th) -- Edwards isn't ready to count five-time champion Johnson out, but at 55 points back, Johnson's hopes for a sixth consecutive title are all but gone. If Edwards finishes first or second at Phoenix, Johnson will be eliminated from title contention. If there is one thing going for Johnson, it's the fact that he is without question the top driver at the one-mile track. In 16 starts, Johnson has four wins, 11 top-fives and 14 top-10s. Johnson hasn't finished outside the top five in his past 10 starts. That's an average finish of 2.5 in that span. Johnson's worst finish is 15th and he's led more than 100 laps in four of the past seven races. Three of his four wins have come in the past four Chase races at Phoenix. If he is to get back in the title discussion, he has to do it at Phoenix.

Kurt Busch (Qualified 17th) -- Busch has just two top-10s in the first eight Chase races and he is on the verge of having his 2011 season officially come to an end. All Edwards needs to do is finish 34th or better and Busch is eliminated. If Stewart finishes 31st or better, it's over for Busch as well. But Busch may go out in style, as he is pretty strong at PIR. Busch has a win, four top-fives and 10 top-10s in 18 starts with a respectable 12.9 average finish. Recently, he's been among the best. Five finishes of ninth or better in the past six races at Phoenix with at least 20 laps led in all five of them. In Chase races since 2006, Busch has a stout 6.2 average finish and hasn't finished worse than 12th.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Qualified 22nd) -- Earnhardt is still alive for his first Cup championship, but barely. If Edwards finishes 26th or better or Stewart finishes 23rd or better, Earnhardt is eliminated. It's too bad, because Earnhardt seems to finally be hitting his stride. Back-to-back seventh-place finishes at Martinsville and Texas have Earnhardt on the upswing heading to a track where he's been decent. Aside from a rough two races in 2009, Earnhardt has finished 14th or better in five of the past seven races, all in the No. 88.

Jeff Gordon (Qualified 23rd) -- Gordon was considered a favorite to win his fifth championship but after starting the Chase with a 24th at Chicago, he was never able to find his rhythm and looks to be eliminated in Phoenix. If Edwards finishes 28th or better or Stewart finishes 25th or better, Gordon will be officially out of contention. At Phoenix, Gordon is among the best. He has two wins, 10 top-fives and 18 top-10s in 25 starts. His 10.0 average finish is second-best among the Chasers and he was flat-out dominant in this year's spring race, leading 138 laps and coming from 20th to the victory. Gordon has finished 11th or better in his past four Phoenix starts, including a runner-up finish in the 2010 spring race.

Kevin Harvick (Qualified 27th) -- If Harvick is to win his first Cup championship, he's going to need some help from Edwards and Stewart. Harvick is 33 points out of the lead and is nearing desperation mode. Harvick has now finished outside the top 10 in two of his past three starts, but he is heading to a track where he has been successful recently. Harvick's past two starts have been top-10 runs with a sixth in last year's Chase race and a fourth this spring. However, he only led one lap in that stretch and that's the only lap he's led since 2007. Overall, Harvick has two wins, two fourths and four other top-10s in 17 starts at Phoenix with an average finish of 13.8. Since 2006, his Chase races have been pretty strong with an average finish of 8.8 in the past five Chase races at Phoenix.

Ryan Newman (Qualified 30th) -- Newman has been eliminated from championship contention.

Denny Hamlin (Qualified 33rd) -- Hamlin has been eliminated from championship contention.

Kyle Busch (Qualified 34th) -- Busch has been eliminated from championship contention.

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