News & Media

Fantasy: Phoenix layout much more predictable

February 23, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM,

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." Five of the most memorable words in movie history encapsulate the hopelessness of a situation that Chinatown's Jake Gittes tried heroically to manipulate to a positive outcome. With any luck, you also had a friend that put an arm around you and led you away from the television last week as driver after driver smacked the wall at Daytona International Speedway and systematically destroyed many lineups.

Just like the drivers, it pays to have a short memory as a fantasy owner. There wasn't a lesson to be learned from Daytona that can be applied to Phoenix International Raceway, so the only thing you can do is shake off the disappointment and move on to the Subway Fresh Fit 500k. The good news is that the short, flat tracks are much more predictable than the restrictor-plate superspeedways both in terms of who finishes well and also who runs consistently strong on them.

On the four short, flat tracks of Phoenix, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Richmond International Raceway and Martinsville Speedway, seven drivers earned seven top-15s in eight races and several others came close to performing that feat. If you can't fill a roster from among a group that consists of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, and Ryan Newman, you simply aren't trying.

The Favorites

The new NASCAR Fantasy Live game is teaching us to look at racing in a new light, however. It's not simply enough to finish well on a given weekend; drivers need to lead laps, post fastest laps, and pass a lot of cars to earn maximum points, so the three favorites this week will emerge from that list of near-perfect top-15s on the strength of their in-race performance at Phoenix during the past few years.

In terms of improvement during a race, several of these top drivers aren't overly impressive -- but that is because they are strong qualifiers as well as strong racers. The four active drivers with the best improvement from start til finish during the past three years at Phoenix are ones with relatively modest results, but two of the eight drivers with virtual sweeps of the top 15 are counted among the top 10. Harvick has not always been perfect at Phoenix, but in his past six races, he has improved nine spots on average from his qualification effort. Coming from the back of the pack also means that he had to pass a lot of cars and last year in both Phoenix races combined, he made 92 Green Flag Passes, ranking him eighth overall. Since he was mired in traffic, however, he only posted the 23rd-most Fastest Laps and that keeps him from being the favorite.

Johnson gets the top distinction this week, because he emerges near the top of two of the critical charts. With 61 Fastest Laps Run, he is second behind Busch (81) and Hamlin (83), but he also has the added bonus of moving forward through the field. His average starting position at Phoenix during the past three years has been an impressive 9.7, but it's nothing compared with his average finish of 2.5 -- an improvement of 7.2 positions. With very little traffic ahead of him, Johnson hasn't been forced to pass very many cars, but fantasy owners will ignore that in light of his active nine-race streak of top-fives that includes four victories.

Hamlin is another flat-track master, but for some reason his confidence is not very great when the series rolls into Phoenix. This past fall, he predicted that this would be a troublesome track for the No. 11 team after finishing 30th in the spring. While making his prediction, he ignored the four consecutive results of sixth or better earned in 2008 and '09, however, and we thought he would be just fine. For most of the race, his foretold doom was unfounded as he raced with the leaders all afternoon and had the car to beat. The team chose the wrong pit-stop strategy and finished 12th, but they still would have earned a lot of points under the new game system and cannot be forgotten this week.


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Jeff Burton has never been known as a particularly strong qualifier, and that will make him a good value on many occasions this year. At Phoenix, his average starting position of 28.3 during the past six races has translated into an average finish of 12.7, which will earn you a lot of points for the place differential in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game. His raw finishes have not been as good as any of our three favorites, but he has made up for that deficit by passing a lot of cars.

Joey Logano is another well-rounded driver. He narrowly missed including his name in the list of seven drivers with a near-perfect top-15 record because one of his efforts ended in a 16th-place finish at Richmond in the spring and another disappointment was suffered at New Hampshire in the fall. He was perfect at Phoenix, however, with a 10th-place finish in the first race and a third in the fall. Equally impressive, he posted the seventh-most Fastest Laps Run in the combined races on this track last year and his average improvement during a four-race Phoenix career of 4.8 is the 11th best among drivers entered this week.


Busch gets listed as an underdog because he can be a little uneven at Phoenix. He qualifies well and runs with the leaders for large segments of a race, but in 12 previous starts there, he has managed to earn only a single top-five, which was a victory in the fall of his rookie season. His next best finish is a seventh in 2007, which might not make him the best value for his salary-cap dollar. On the other hand, he rarely stumbles. Other than a rough second season when he finished in the 30s twice, he's never crossed the finish line worse than 17th at Phoenix and that means you won't lose a lot of ground by starting him.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Short, flat tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Denny Hamlin6.68 17.David Reutimann18.22 32.Robby Gordon32.57
3.Jeff Gordon7.62 18.Jamie McMurray19.25 33.Travis Kvapil33.39
4.Tony Stewart10.20 19.Greg Biffle19.90 34.David Gilliland34.05
5.Mark Martin10.46 20.Joey Logano21.35 35.J.J. Yeley35.18
6.Kyle Busch10.49 21.Kasey Kahne21.41 36.Dave Blaney35.90
7.Clint Bowyer11.50 22.Brian Vickers21.54 37.Mike Bliss36.14
8.Trevor Bayne11.63 23.Marcos Ambrose22.04 38.Michael McDowell36.29
9.Jeff Burton11.77 24.A.J. Allmendinger22.15 39.Bill Elliott36.75
10.Carl Edwards12.18 25.Matt Kenseth22.69 40.Andy Lally37.81
11.Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.39 26.Brad Keselowski22.77 41.Brian Keselowski38.00
12.Kevin Harvick12.88 27.Casey Mears23.13 42.Joe Nemechek38.35
13.Kurt Busch14.12 28.David Ragan26.92 43.Tony Raines38.69
14.Ryan Newman14.17 29.Bobby Labonte29.66 44.Landon Cassill38.97
15.Juan Montoya15.96 30.Paul Menard31.10 45.Terry Labonte41.24

Gordon is another driver who has consistently outperformed during qualification compared to his finishing position. His average start of 11.3 plummets to an average finish of 16.8 and those 5.5 positions will cost you in the new strength-based game. The No. 24 cannot be ignored outright on this track, however. Last year, he was in position to win the spring race before a green-white-checkered finish allowed Newman to grab the lead as Gordon and Matt Kenseth got into a shoving match on the final lap. He held on to finish second, but that is his only top-five in his past seven Phoenix attempts.