After a week off, Jeff Gordon may not have much more time in the spotlight after his win at Texas. All numbers point to teammate Jimmie Johnson being the dominant driver at Phoenix International Raceway this week, making him a must-start in tiered and salary cap leagues. You simply have to anchor your lineup with Johnson if you can do it.
Johnson is gunning for his fourth consecutive win at Phoenix, and it will be difficult to deny him. The last driver to win four consecutive races? Yep, Johnson, who turned the trick at Lowe’s Motor Speedway from 2004 to 2005. In his win at the site last November, Johnson posted a near-perfect Driver Rating of 149.9. He led 217 of 313 laps and had 66 of the Fastest Laps Run. Since 2005, covering the past eight races at Phoenix, Johnson has owned the key Loop Data categories.
Since ’05, Johnson leads all drivers at Phoenix in Driver Rating (122.0), Average Running Position (5.0), Fastest Laps Run (266), Average Green-Flag Speed (123.719) and Laps in the Top 15 (2,383, or 95.4 percent). He has notched nine Top 10 finishes and six Top 5s in 11 starts at the site.
“There’s not really anything I can put my finger on,” Johnson said. We’ve just been able to get the car comfortable for me and I’ve just been able to get around the track. I don’t really go into a race thinking about stats.” Fantasy owners do, though, and they’ll lock onto Johnson for sure this week.
Gordon has a win and 15 Top 10s in 20 Phoenix starts, so he should be a strong contender for a Top-5 finish and is a good bet to maintain his lead in the Sprint Cup standings, even if he doesn’t push Johnson for the win. His DR of 100.3 since '05 at Phoenix is only fifth-best among current drivers, and his ARP of 9.8 is fourth-best.
Johnson may get more of a challenge from Richard Childress Racing Drivers this week. The RCR cars feature a few drivers that are among a select group that may perform better than they have so far in 2009.
Kevin Harvick (2006 sweep) and Jeff Burton have won back-to-back races at Phoenix in the past. Harvick and Burton haven’t been among the better fantasy choices so far in 2009, but this is a good site to gamble on them.
Harvick has two wins, three Top 5s and six Top 10s in 12 Phoenix starts. Since ’05, he also ranks second among all drivers in DR (105.4), ARP (7.9) and Laps in the Top 15 (2,113, or 84.6 percent). Burton has 11 Top 10s in 19 Phoenix starts. He isn’t a prime figure in recent Loop Data categories, but you have to like him for a Top 10 finish, and he may even lead some laps.
Let’s also not overlook RCR’s Clint Bowyer, who finished second at the site last April and fifth in April of 2006. Bowyer endured bad luck in the second races of 2006 and 2007 that ruined possible strong finishes.
Carl Edwards has also frustrated his fantasy owners to this point of the season, but like Harvick and Burton, he appears ready to rise above his earlier performances in 2009 this week. Edwards has only one Top 5 in his first seven races. He has never won at Phoenix, but since ‘05, his DR of 103.3 ranks third-best among all drivers, and he ranks second in Average Green Flag Speed (123.525) and third in Fastest Laps Run (181). He has four Top 5s and six Top 10s in nine Phoenix starts.
Edwards’ Roush-Fenway teammate, Greg Biffle, has also been inconsistent so far this season, but like the RCR guys and Edwards, he should be tabbed to perform above expectations this week. He finished third at Texas and should be able to build on the positive momentum, even with the off week. Biffle has finished in the Top 10 in two of the past three Phoenix events. Since ’05, he ranks fourth in DR (100.5), and second of the Fastest Laps Run (257).
Kurt Busch has been mostly a pleasant surprise so far this season, and has to be a primo choice in tiered and salary cap leagues. Busch is one of two drivers, Harvick being the other, to score a perfect DR at Phoenix. Busch pulled the feat off in 2005; Harvick did it a year later. Busch has six Top 10s in 12 Phoenix starts. Since ‘05, his ARP of 9.5 is third-best among all drivers. His DR of 99.2 during that span is sixth-best among all drivers.
Mark Martin doesn’t quite look like he will contend for a victory any time soon, but recent finishes at Phoenix indicate he should be a very good pick for a strong finish overall. In his past seven races at the site, he has a DR of 96.0. Tony Stewart should be dependable again. He has eight Top 10s in 14 Phoenix starts, and a DR of 98.9 since ‘05.
Kyle Busch has led all drivers in Quality Passes at Phoenix since 2005 (238). NASCAR defines Quality Passes as passes of cars in the Top 15 while under green-flag conditions. Denny Hamlin has four Top-10 finishes in seven Phoenix starts, and a DR of 96.1 since ’05.
Among the lesser-priced drivers, David Reutimann has never finished better than 18th in three Phoenix starts, but with his average finish of 15.0 so far this season, there’s no real way to justify “garaging” him. (There’s no bench in racing.)
A.J. Allmendinger (84.1 DR) looks like a quality choice again. He finished 16th in his one Cup start at the site last season. Marcos Ambrose, who has been rising above expectations so far, has a DR of 70.7 at Phoenix, 22nd among all drivers. He finished 18th in his only Cup start at the site last season.
For my list of Top 25 rankings for Phoenix and a link to the podcast preview, click here.