News & Media

Fantasy Preview: Momentum can go long way at repaved Phoenix

November 09, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM,

If the regular season has not provided enough wild cards already, Phoenix International Raceway officials decided to slip one more Joker into the deck. The race track has not been repaved since 1993 and nearly 20 years of unbearable heat has taken its toll, so it was time for a fresh coat of asphalt. While they were at it, they decided to make a few changes.

Progressive banking has been used with a lot of success on several other tracks, including the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami and Las Vegas Motor speedways, so those at PIR implemented that plan on their 1-mile oval -- sort of. They took about 1 degree of banking out of the bottom groove in hope of pushing the drivers farther up the track into a second lane, but the maximum banking of 11 degrees still makes this one of the flattest tracks on the circuit. With the fresh asphalt and the grip it gives, drivers probably will be able to stick in the bottom lane until the pavement begins to weather; however, excitement is on the horizon.

In a recent open test, most drivers interviewed by the media believe that the Kobalt Tools 500k will be a one-groove affair; passing is going to be difficult at best. That puts the onus on the pit crew to get their driver out quickly as track position is going to be a critical component of success. The only problem with that scenario is that fantasy owners cannot predict who will or won't have track position before the race begins and rosters are locked.

One thing almost is certain: Momentum is critical. One of the big questions asked by fantasy owners each week is "what takes precedence, momentum or a driver's track record?" Last week, Tony Stewart gave a resounding endorsement for momentum when he overcame a recent bad record in the Lone Star state and dominated at Texas. His ultimatum to Carl Edwards seemed like a simple mind game following the win at Martinsville, but instead it motivated both of the points' contenders. The driver of the No. 99 finished second and both he and Stewart posted top-three Driver Ratings for the event.

Martin Truex Jr. has been uneven this season, but he rode a wave of back-to-back top-10s into Texas and scored another single-digit result. It took nearly the entire season, but Jeff Burton finally earned an oval top-10 at Talladega and he immediately backed it up with another at Martinsville. The No. 31 team's fuel strategy backfired, but he nearly stole a third consecutive top-10 last week. Jeff Gordon has struggled on that 1.5-mile track in recent years, but his strong run at Martinsville gave the team the impetus needed to run well at Texas. It appears that momentum is going to be equally important in the coming weeks at Phoenix and Homestead.

The Favorites

Jimmie Johnson has been close to perfect on this track throughout his career with only two of 16 results ending outside the top 10. Since the fall of 2006, he has never finished worse than fifth, which gives him more momentum than anyone else in the field. The track is slightly reconfigured, but Victory Lane still is in the same place alongside the media center and from fall 2007 through fall '09, Johnson visited there in four of five races.

Johnson's closest competitor this week is likely to be his teammate Gordon. He showed determination this spring by powering past Kyle Busch in the final laps to win at Phoenix, which makes him the most recent winner on this track. He's been equally strong on the remainder of the short, flat tracks with an accident at Richmond as the only time this year he's failed to finish 11th or better at Phoenix, Martinsville, New Hampshire or Richmond. He enters the weekend with three consecutive top-fives on this track type. Restarts continue to plague him, but if he can get up front in the final laps, he almost certainly will be able to stay there if this track becomes a one-groove affair.

The points' lead is liable to be just as tight or tighter when the series rolls out of Arizona, but there might be a new leader. Stewart was hit or miss on the short, flat tracks last year, but he has been unstoppable in 2011. His single bad run on this track type came well back at the start of the season at Martinsville, but the remainder of his efforts has equaled seventh or better. More importantly, he won the past two races on minimally banked tracks 1 mile or less in length and both of those events came during the Chase.


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Edwards won't let Stewart get very far ahead of him, but if he is going to stumble at all during the last two weeks, this is the most likely place. Edwards won this race last year as part of a sweep of the top 10 at Phoenix in 2010. Extend the data pool a little and his worst result on this track in the previous three years was a 16th, but that was not enough to keep him out of trouble in the first Phoenix race this year when he got caught up in someone else's early accident. Moreover, Roush Fenway Racing has not always put its best foot forward on short, flat tracks, but just like Stewart at Texas, fantasy owners can expect a solid run from Edwards at Phoenix with Big Mo on his side. Both should finish in the top 10 and one certainly will finish in the top five.

David Ragan's season on short, flat tracks so far has been bookended with poor results. One of those came at the beginning of the season at Phoenix and the other was in the most recent race on this track type at Martinsville, but they have been uncharacteristic of his efforts in 2011. In the five races on this track type between his pair of disappointments, Ragan earned four top-10s and a 14th. He ran strong at Phoenix earlier this year until he was caught up in the same incident that sidelined his teammate, so he has to be considered a strong contender if he stays out of trouble.


Clint Bowyer has only two races remaining with Richard Childress Racing and it might be a good idea to let him rest for the remainder of the season. The short, flat tracks were exceedingly kind to him in 2010, but he seems to have lost his rhythm this year. He challenged Stewart for the lead at New Hampshire before running out of gas in the final laps, so that race would not be counted against him if not for the fact that it is one of four consecutive results outside the top 15 on this track type; equally disappointing, he struggled in the earlier race at Phoenix. There also is a possibility that Bowyer could become embroiled in the emotions raging at Michael Waltrip Racing for the moment, now that David Reutimann will be released from his ride at the end of the season.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Short, flat tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jimmie Johnson7.20 17.Greg Biffle19.07 31.David Stremme32.32
3.Denny Hamlin7.94 18.Jamie McMurray19.14 32.Robby Gordon32.86
4.Kyle Busch8.63 19.Martin Truex Jr.19.18 33.David Gilliland34.34
5.Ryan Newman10.88 20.Matt Kenseth19.64 34.Scott Speed35.36
6.Tony Stewart11.76 21.Kasey Kahne19.96 35.Mike Bliss35.47
7.Kurt Busch12.23 22.Brian Vickers20.80 36.Travis Kvapil35.87
8.Clint Bowyer12.52 23.Joey Logano21.02 37.Andy Lally36.27
9.Mark Martin13.05 24.Brad Keselowski21.92 38.Scott Riggs36.65
10.Juan Montoya13.13 25.Marcos Ambrose23.76 39.Dave Blaney37.01
11.Carl Edwards13.21 26.David Ragan25.85 40.Landon Cassill37.15
12.Kevin Harvick13.24 27.Casey Mears27.28 41.J.J. Yeley37.57
13.Jeff Burton13.44 28.Regan Smith28.45 42.Michael McDowell38.54
14.Dale Earnhardt Jr.16.18 29.Paul Menard29.52 43.Joe Nemechek39.48
15.A.J. Allmendinger18.44 

On Monday, NASCAR lifted the parking directive levied against Kyle Busch. They fined him, placed him on probation again -- this time until the end of the calendar year -- and are watching him very closely for the remainder of the season. It will take a while before anyone knows if he truly had a change of heart after getting sidelined for a race, but one thing is certain: Busch cannot afford to get into another altercation at Phoenix or Homestead. That will make him vulnerable to competitors that want to test his resolve and could cost the No. 18 a spot or two on the track while he is forced to be less aggressive.

Relive all the highlights from this year's earlier race at Phoenix: