Complete Preview for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Phoenix

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst INovember 4, 2013

Complete Preview for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Phoenix

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    The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has reached its penultimate race. Sunday's event takes place from Phoenix International Raceway, where the series raced in the second week of the season.

    Following a dominating performance by Jimmie Johnson last weekend in Texas, he enters the second-to-last race with a seven-point advantage over Matt Kenseth.

    Kenseth was able to rebound from a pit road speeding penalty halfway through the event and post a fourth-place finish. 

    The first time the series stopped in Phoenix, Carl Edwards snapped a 70-race winless streak when he claimed the checkered flag. It was his second career win on the one-mile speedway. Edwards is the only driver to post multiple wins at this track over the last nine events.

    While the eyes of most people will be squarely on the two championship contenders, there are plenty of other drivers to watch when it comes to Phoenix International Raceway.

    Join us as we tell you which drivers have the best chance of winning and what the hottest stories are as the Sprint Cup Series gets set for the ninth race of the 2013 Chase for the Championship.


Phoenix Race Information

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    Sunday's race at Phoenix is second-to-last event of the year. Here are all of the important details to get you ready.

    Race: AdvoCare 500(k)

    Track: Phoenix International Raceway

    Distance: 312 laps to make up 312 miles/500km

    Green Flag: Sunday, Nov. 10, 3:00 p.m. ET

    TV: ESPN

    Defending Race Winner: Kevin Harvick

    First Race: November 6, 1988 (won by Alan Kulwicki)

Breaking Down Phoenix International Raceway

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    Phoenix International Raceway is a low-banked one-mile tri-oval track. Other than Martinsville Speedway, it is the shortest speedway used during the 10-week Chase.

    The track is unique in that it is not a typical oval. Because of the terrain that it was built on, the backstretch includes a dogleg. Phoenix is a progressively banked track. Turns 1 and 2 have 11 degrees of banking, while Turns 3 and 4 feature nine degrees of banking.

    Construction on Phoenix International Raceway finished in 1964, but the track did not host its first Sprint Cup Series race until 1988. That race was special in that it was the first win of Alan Kulwicki's career. Following his victory, Kulwicki performed the first "Polish Victory Lap."

    Until 2005, the speedway only hosted one event annually. Since then, it has been home to two events per year. Since 2011, the first race of the year held in Phoenix has been the second event on the Sprint Cup schedule while the second event at the facility has always been held on the second-to-last weekend of the season. 

    Eighteen of the last 20 races held in Phoenix have been won by drivers that are currently in the Chase. Jimmie Johnson is the track's leader in wins with four. Kevin Harvick is second with three wins while no other driver has more than two wins at the Arizona-based facility.

    For a short track, starting position is not as critical as one may think it would be. Five of the last seven Phoenix races saw a driver who started outside the top 10 end up in Victory Lane.

    Overall, 18 of the 34 races held here have been won by a driver who qualified worse than 10th.


Top Storylines at Phoenix

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    Johnson Dominates in Texas, Takes Over Points Lead

    Domination may not be a strong enough word when trying to describe Jimmie Johnson's performance this past weekend in Texas. Johnson led 255 of the 334 laps and won by more than four seconds. At no point in the race was he ever truly challenged, and he seemingly coasted to an easy win and in the process took over sole possession of first place in the standings.

    Johnson's closest championship competitor, Matt Kenseth, overcame a mid-race pit road penalty to finish in fourth place and minimize the damage of Johnson's win. With just two races remaining in the season, Johnson now leads Kenseth by seven points in the standings. The two drivers had been tied for the championship lead heading into the most recent event.


    Championship Battle Appears to be a Two-Man Fight

    Seventy-three laps into Sunday's race at Texas, the point standings had its first significant shakeup. Jeff Gordon, running 11th at the time, blew a left-front tire and crashed into the outside wall. The damage sent him to the garage for nearly 200 laps and all but ended his championship hopes.

    After scoring the win one week earlier, Gordon had put himself within 27 points of the championship lead and, with a strong finish at Texas, would have been in a position to challenge for his fifth series title over the final two weeks.

    All of that went away with his early-race accident. Now, as the series has just two races remaining, it appears that the championship has come down to just Johnson and Kenseth. Only seven points separate those two drivers while the next closest competitor is Kevin Harvick, a distant 40 points out of the top spot.

How the Top 2 Drivers in the Standings Got to This Point

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    Normally, in this spot we would take a look at each of the top-five drivers in the standings and assess their chances moving forward. Seeing as how the championship appears to be down to just two drivers with two races remaining, we thought we would change it up a little and look at how each of them has put themselves in the position they are in currently.

    Jimmie Johnson: After leading the point standings for the duration of the season, Jimmie Johnson limped into the Chase with the worst four-race stretch of his professional career. His finishes of 40th, 36th, 28th and 40th to end the regular season saw a 75-point lead in the standings turn into a one-point deficit as the playoffs began.

    When the standings were reset as the playoffs began, Johnson started the postseason as the second seed thanks to four regular-season wins.

    In eight Chase races this year, Johnson is a two-time winner and has finished inside the top 10 seven times. His lone postseason finish outside the top 10 was a 13th-effort at Talladega where he beat his primary championship rival by seven positions.

    Johnson has not started a Chase event worse than 11th this year, and he has led at least one lap in all eight postseason events. With two races remaining, Johnson leads the standings by seven points.


    Matt Kenseth: Matt Kenseth had a very up-and-down regular season. He led the series with five wins, but he also posted six finishes outside the top 20. He spent the majority of the season ranked between fifth and seventh in the standings, ultimately ending the regular season in fifth place.

    Thanks to his five victories, Kenseth began the postseason as the top seed. He opened the playoffs by winning the first two events. Following three more finishes of 11th or better, Kenseth maintained his spot atop the standings as the series headed to Talladega.

    Following a disappointing 20th-place finish on the two-and-a-half mile superspeedway, Kenseth lost the points lead for the first time this postseason.

    He has since rebounded with back-to-back runner-up finishes but has been unable to regain the points lead thanks to slightly better performances by Johnson.

    As the series travels to Phoenix for the second-to-last race of the year, Kenseth trails Johnson by seven points in the championship standings.

Favorites at Phoenix

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    Jimmie Johnson

    Not surprisingly, Jimmie Johnson runs very well in Phoenix. He is the track's all-time wins leader, with four. In 20 starts at the one-mile track, Johnson has 16 top-10 finishes. His 932 laps led at PIR are the most in track history, his 6.4 average finish is a full three positions better than any other driver.

    Coupled with the fact that Johnson is the most recent winner in Sprint Cup competition, the driver of the No. 48 car is carrying plenty of momentum into the season's penultimate event.


    Jeff Gordon

    After winning at Martinsville and getting back into the championship hunt, it all went away at Texas for Jeff Gordon. While the 2013 title now appears out of his reach, another trip to Victory Lane is not out of the question. Gordon is a two-time Phoenix winner and has posted 20 top-10 finishes in 29 career starts.

    Gordon is a three-time pole sitter at this facility, and his 10.9 average starting position is the best among active drivers. His 11.4 average finish is the fourth best among his competitors. 


    Kyle Busch

    Kyle Busch is a former winner at Phoenix, doing so in 2005 in just his second career start at the track. While the series title appears to have once again eluded Busch, he is in the midst of scoring his best career finish in the standings. A strong finish on Sunday would go a long way in achieving that. 

    Busch is a 10-time top 10 finisher at Phoenix in 17 career starts. He is a two-time pole winner, and his 13.9 average finish is fifth-best among Chase participants.


    Kevin Harvick

    Kevin Harvick's three victories at Phoenix rank second behind five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson. He enters this race as the defending winner and currently sits third in the standings. 

    Harvick is 40 points out of the top spot in the championship standings and would need some bad luck to befall both Johnson and Matt Kenseth to have any chance of racing for the title at Homestead. While the series crown may be out of reach, Harvick would love to score one more victory before ending his relationship with Richard Childress Racing.


    Mark Martin

    Mark Martin has struggled in his duties driving the No. 14 in relief of Tony Stewart. He has just one top-10 in 10 starts driving that car, but Phoenix is the perfect track for him to post a good finish. 

    Martin is a two-time winner in Phoenix and is the track's all-time leader with 21 top-10 finishes. The 911 laps he has led there are second-most all-time. His 11.6 average starting position is the fourth best among active drivers while his 9.4 average finishing position is second only to Jimmie Johnson.

Phoenix Predictions

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    The last time the Sprint Cup Series cars were on the track, Jimmie Johnson ran circles around the competition en route to a dominating win in Texas. If he has a second-consecutive performance like that, he may clinch the series championship in the process.

    Phoenix is statistically one of his better tracks while his closest championship rival, Matt Kenseth, has had far less success. Johnson would love nothing more than to increase his lead in the standings before the series wraps up its season at Homestead-Miami, a track where he has never won.

    If you go by just the trends of this year, Johnson is unlikely to win at Phoenix. While he has posted a top-10 finish four times this season following a victory, he has yet to back up a win by repeating the following week. 

    If that trend holds true, expect Johnson to finish in the back half of the top 10. 

    Using that logic (as bizarre as it may be), that means the top spot is open for the taking. While Kenseth needs the win more than anyone, he does not typically run well enough here to have a lot of faith in him.

    Jeff Gordon feels like the safest pick based on his two wins and a plethora of top-10 finishes at Phoenix, but there is one driver that sooner or later absolutely has to shake free of his poor Chase finishes.

    Only one of Kyle Busch's 28 career Sprint Cup Series wins has come in the final 10 races of a season. That win was at Phoenix back in 2005, a year that he was not even a Chase participant.

    Busch has scored five top-five finishes in this year's Chase. That is how many he earned in his previous three Chase appearances combined. With a team and driver this talented, it is just a matter of time before Chase wins begin to pile up.

    When the sun sets in the desert on Sunday night, expect Johnson to maintain the points lead, but it will not be because of another win. 

    This driver is so due it is scary.

    Phoenix Winner: Kyle Busch