We head west this week for the first of two annual visits to the one-mile, low-banked, tri-oval that is Phoenix International Raceway, more commonly known as PIR. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its first stop on the west coast this season (Phoenix also happens to be the final west coast stop on the tour as well) and NASCAR fans will get their first look at the new GEN6 car on a more traditional style track this weekend.
One interesting fact about the two races at PIR is that contrary to the more traditional NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races measured in miles, the ‘500’ in SUBWAY Fresh Fit 500 is actually in kilometers. This makes Phoenix the only oval to have its race distances measured in kilometers and not miles or laps as, both road course races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen have their races measured in kilometers. So 500 kilometers or 312 laps is the distance this week and with a new car, a perfect weather forecast, and with last fall’s race full of fireworks, I expect Sunday’s SUBWAY Fresh Fit 500 to be just as exciting as last week’s kickoff to the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ season in the Daytona 500.
It was a fantastic start to the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series campaign last week and I was able to get past my hatred for restrictor plate racing and actually really enjoyed watching the Daytona 500. There were so many unknowns surrounding the race last week that added to the drama of this year’s kickoff to the season that it was hard not to try and gain some new fans of the sport in my non-NASCAR friends and family. Who would win the first race in the new GEN6 car? How would the field of drivers handle the return to pack racing at the plate tracks? How would Danica Patrick handle the pressure of being the first woman to start on the pole of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race? Did she have a legitimate shot at winning the Daytona 500?
All the questions were answered last week, and I must say I was thoroughly impressed with the performance of the new car, the return of the pack style racing, and Danica’s performance in the Daytona 500. I completely discounted her being a contender last Sunday, and she absolutely proved me wrong with her performance last week, despite her reaction in the post-race interview.
As for my picks, I was able to pare down the list of potential winners by using a historical trend formula I was able to develop in the 3 month off-season leading up to last week’s Daytona 500. I made the call that the winner would not come from the front row, would not be Kevin Harvick (the winner of the Sprint Unlimited and one of the Duel races), and the winner of the Daytona 500 would have taken home the Harley J. Earl Trophy once before. This left seven drivers for me to pick as my Winner Pick last week (Matt Kenseth, Trevor Bayne, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Michael Waltrip).
I went with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was the second-best pick last week out of the group of elite drivers my formula pared the field down to, and I can’t complain about picking the runner-up given the new car, the style of racing, and the uncertainty surrounding the race at Daytona last week. I picked a Hendrick Motorsports driver to win the race last week, but came up just one position short of starting my season off with a win. Dale Jr. had this to say following his runner-up finish last week:
“Real happy with the way the car run all day. You couldn’t pass much. But when I was able to really see what my car could do, it was plenty capable of winning the race. The guys did a good job all winter trying to prepare for running well. We got 1-2 out of our shop. Really happy with Hendrick and all our effort.”
My Dark Horse pick was just that, a true Dark Horse pick. I went with JTG Daugherty driver, Bobby Labonte who had a respectable points day and managed to dodge all the troubles that come along with a restrictor place race, but did not earn me a Dark Horse top 10 last week. Running as high as sixth with less than 25 laps left in the Daytona 500, Labonte finished his day in the 15th spot as a result of a late-race shot on the right front of the No.47 Kroger/USO Toyota Camry. Not a bad finish, but not exactly what I am looking for going forward.
Phoenix to me is a big short track, if that makes sense. It’s a one-mile tri-oval with a tricky configuration, including inconsistent banking throughout and the 9-degree banked ‘dogleg’ on the backstretch. Fine sand plays a major role on tire wear, after all, the track is in the middle of the desert. Some of the guys you think of when you think recent dominance on short tracks in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, you think Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Brad Kesolowski, Jimmie Johnson, and Clint Bowyer.
For Phoenix in particular, it is tough not to make a case for Jimmie Johnson as he has an average finish of fifth in seventeen starts at PIR, and it has been only been three races since Johnson has visited Victory Lane in consecutive weeks. What is holding me back from picking Johnson this week at PIR is his recent history in the desert, as since the reconfiguration in 2011, Five-Time has finished 14th, 4th, and 32nd in the three races since the repaving.
The other guy likely to be a favorite when the final odds are released this evening is Denny Hamlin. He is the defending champion of this race, a race he won by 7.13 seconds last season, and is the guy I will turn to for the win this week. Mark Martin was the pole-sitter last season when Hamlin won the Subway Fresh Fit 500, and he will look to become the first driver to start inside the first four rows to go on and win a race at PIR since the track’s reconfiguration in 2011. Before the facelift in 2011, just two drivers had won a race at Phoenix after starting outside the top ten, the last being Jeff Gordon in the final race before the repaving in 2011. Since the SUBWAY Fresh Fit 500 is such a short race, the woes of the Joe Gibbs Racing cars from Daytona should not play a factor in this week’s race.
Dark Horse Pick
Why not look at the guy starting first this week at PIR as a guy who may be overlooked by most handicappers as he has not won a race in over 2 years, but has a storied history in the desert. Mark Martin is 9th best in driver rating over the past eight years at PIR, and has really set the stage all weekend for all of Michael Waltrip Racing drivers. In practice today, teammate Clint Bowyer radioed in to crew chief Brian Pattie that if his car was set up any differently than Martin’s, to immediately change the setup to whatever Martin was running. Though the temperature for today’s first practice session was far lower than what is forecasted for race time tomorrow, Martin has looked fantastic since he unloaded on Friday. Watch for Martin to start up front and stay up front for the majority of the day tomorrow.
That’s all for this week, stay tuned for next week’s picks when we roll the dice in Vegas! Until next time, you stay classy NASCAR NATION!