Phoenix International Raceway hosts the first night race of the 2010 season when the green flag flies on the Subway Fit Fresh 600 Saturday night.
When the green flag does fly Denny Hamlin will be behind the wheel of his No. 11 FedEx Toyota, however how long he stays there is unknown. Hamlin had knee surgery last Wednesday to repair a torn ACL just two days after winning his first race of the year at Martinsville.
Hamlin’s recovery seemed to be going well, but 375 laps around Phoenix will be the ultimate test.
A bigger test is going to be for the competition on Saturday. Not only is this year’s race longer than in years past, but can anyone stop Hendrick Motorsports? The fearsome foursome has nine combined wins at the track, including the last six races. A non-HMS driver hasn’t won at the track since 2006, and it’ll take stiff competition to make sure the streak doesn’t continue.
Stiff competition will come in the form of past Phoenix winners Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick, who have been off to a solid start to the year and are just waiting to break back into victory lane. So are both of their teammates, Ryan Newman at Stewart-Haas, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer at Richard Childress Racing. They too have all been off to solid starts in 2010, but need to get a win and bonus points for when the Chase starts.
Our Creatures are also chasing bonus points. After Martinsville another win was collected and now it’s on to Phoenix where they’ll try to do it again. Here’s whom they believe will capture the checkered flag after 600 miles in the desert.
Misan Akuya: Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart has raced USAC cars IndyCars, Nationwide and Cup cars at Phoenix and has experienced a level of success in all of them. In 16 starts he has a win, which he earned in his rookie season, seven top fives, nine top 10, 311 laps led and an average finish of 11.00 which is sixth best among drivers.
Last spring in this race it looked like Stewart was going to win but the ageless wonder Mark Martin had the dominant car and Stewart had to settle for second. Eighth in points right now Stewart was just a few laps away from victory at Bristol, but Jimmie Johnson stole the win. Look for the 14 to be a serious threat all weekend, qualify upfront, be upfront all night, lead laps maybe the most laps, and be able to challenge when it matters.
James Broomhead: Kurt Busch
My pick this week may be a little out of left field, but Kurt's average finish of 10.8 puts him well within the margin of error when you throw 43 cars on a one mile oval. I've passed up obvious picks of Jimmie Johnson, last year's winner Mark Martin and flat-track star Denny Hamlin (the 'new Denny' post-surgery is an unknown quantity) because Penske Racing is in the kind of form they haven't seen in years and like his brother before him, Kurt appears to have found a racing partner in Steve Addington.
Kelly Crandall: Jimmie Johnson
Just like Martinsville, Johnson has made Phoenix another one of his playgrounds. With four wins in the last five races, the No. 48 car is always near the front when it’s getting ready to decide the winner at Phoenix. After settling for a ninth place at Martinsville because they were testing things for the Chase, Johnson won’t be satisfied to just ride around at Phoenix, he’ll be looking for his fourth win of the year.
Billy Fellin: Kurt Busch
So I feel immense pressure in making my pick this week, after correctly choosing Hamlin at Martinsville. I'll take you through my thought process: Mark Martin was strong last November, but hasn't shown anything since his car went neon-green. Hamlin had surgery, Harvick's still ticked off about Martinsville (probably also see: Kenseth), and Johnson has won at Phoenix four times, making him the easy pick to win. I've never really been about easy.
That brings me to Kurt Busch, who has been one of the strongest drivers at Phoenix that doesn’t drive a Chevrolet or a Hendrick Motorsports car.
Adam Heasley: NO PICK SENT
No pick sent.
Christopher Leone: Mark Martin
I’m going to go with Martin this weekend, partially because it seems about time that he kick it into gear. He was fourth in points exiting Las Vegas, only to plummet to 17th in the last three weeks.
You also have to keep in mind that Martin is to Phoenix as Johnson is to Martinsville, albeit without quite as many wins. His average finish of 8.3 in 26 starts is incredible. Unlike a driver with a shorter career like Johnson, with fewer opportunities to make a mistake, Martin has finished every Phoenix race he’s started since 1989.
Kara Martin: Jimmie Johnson
I hate to go with the obvious choice but hey...it's too obvious NOT to go with! No need to get into stats, everyone already knows how Johnson dominates at Phoenix. It will be another predictable trip to victory lane on Saturday night.
Dustin Parks: Mark Martin
At this time last year, Martin was not having the greatest of seasons and came to Phoenix looking to run well. That night, not only did he run well, but went to victory lane. What happened after that win was nothing short of unimaginable.
He won Darlington, the oldest track, then at Michigan. He soon dominated Chicago and then won the first Chase race in New Hampshire. Five wins, a runner-up position in the points, and one of the most successful returns to full-time driving ever seen. Martin showed that the "old man” could still get the job done.
I've must pick GoDaddy.com 's "Grand-Daddy" driver. If this track set off his 2009 campaign, then I've must believe it will one more time.
Patti Rodisch: Mark Martin
At last year’s race in the spring this was the race that turned Mark Martin’s season around after a lackluster start. He led 157 laps and had a driver rating of 145.6, spent most of the race in the top five, and had an average running position was 2.1. Martin has always run well at the desert track with an average finish of 9.2. I expect to see Martin rebound after a cut tire ruined his day at Martinsville and make it back-to-back wins at PIR.
Sal Sigala Jr.: Jimmie Johnson
Even though Johnson didn't have the finish his fans expected of him at Martinsville, there is nothing wrong with a top 10. Johnson has won five of the last six races at this one-mile track, which makes him a legitimate threat to at least finish in the top 10. The last bye week that NASCAR took in March, Johnson came back and won at Bristol, which was a track he had never won at.
Rob Tiongson: Brian Vickers
Sure, this isn't his best track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit. In fact, it's not treated him well since joining the Red Bull Racing Team, with a 19th place finish last April being his best result in the No. 83 car. However, he's coming off a solid sixth from Martinsville, a track that's somewhat like Phoenix. Climbing up the points chase into the top 12, I look for Vickers to capitalize on his momentum with a victory in the Valley of the Sun. Their short track program has improved tremendously, and it's going to pay off dividends with a win at PIR.
David Yeazell: Jimmie Johnson
I cannot believe I just typed that.
Kara Martin (867 ) Tony Stewart finished 26th (1 )
Billy Fellin (841 ) Denny Hamlin won (1 )
Kelly Crandall (837 ) Jimmie Johnson finished ninth (0 )
Dustin Parks (820 ) Jimmie Johnson finished ninth (1 )
Christopher Leone (818 ) Jimmie Johnson finished ninth (1 )
James Broomhead (770 ) Jimmie Johnson finished ninth (1 )
Rob Tiongson (736 ) Jeff Gordon finished third (0 )
David Yeazell (736 ) Jeff Gordon finished third (0 )
Sal Sigala Jr. (721 ) Jimmie Johnson finished ninth (0 )
Misan Akuya (692 ) Jimmie Johnson finished ninth (0 )
Patti Rodisch (589 ) Tony Stewart finished 26th (0 )
Adam Heasley (578 ) Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 15th (0 )
Chevrolet has dominated the ‘Jewel in the Desert’ with victories in the last ten races (14 total at the track). The Fords are also a powerhouse at Phoenix, with 12 victories, however they haven’t seen victory lane out west since 2005.
Winners at Phoenix are also prone to start in the top ten, with the last seven victors starting no worse than seventh. Three of those drivers also started on the pole.
Summary of Picks
Jimmie Johnson – 4
Mark Martin – 3
Kurt Busch – 2
Tony Stewart – 1
Brian Vickers – 1