The penultimate round of this year’s Sprint Cup Series season comes at Phoenix International Raceway. The Kobalt Tools 500 comes after a wild race at Texas that saw one Chaser flip off an official, two mild-mannered Chasers get into a fight and Jimmie Johnson somehow lose the points lead to a determined Denny Hamlin.
Lucky for Johnson that Phoenix is up next.
While Hamlin has a top five finish in half of his career Phoenix starts, Johnson has an eye-popping 4.9 average finish at the track. It’s augmented by 12 Top-10s and four wins (including the win in this race last year), in 14 starts. It’s one of the best records ever for any given driver at any particular track.
The statistics seem to say that Phoenix is a Hendrick Motorsports track, as the top three active drivers are Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon. So, for once in the Chase, I’m going to go on a limb and pick a non-Chase driver as my lead pick, seeing as I’ve already picked Johnson and Gordon in the past eight weeks, and both may be negatively affected by their crew swap this weekend.
So, that leaves Mark Martin.
That’s right – Martin’s my fantasy pick for the weekend. It’s really not hard to bet against a guy who hasn’t finished outside the top 20 at a track since his debut there, and that’s the case with Martin. In particular, he hasn’t finished worse than fourth at the track with Hendrick, winning in the spring race last year.
Will Jimmie Johnson become the first driver since Alan Kulwicki to win the championship without leading the points with two races to go?
Martin has also picked it up in the Chase, finishing no worse than 14th since Dover and scoring a runner-up finish at Martinsville. Last week’s race at Texas yielded a third-place finish, so the team has momentum on its side.
My second pick of the weekend is Jeff Burton, another ex-Jack Roush driver whose stock has been pretty high at Phoenix even after leaving the flagship Ford stable. He had a 25th place finish at the track in the spring, but before that, you would have had to go all the way back to 1996 to find a Burton finish outside the top 15.
Of course, Burton’s been in the news recently for a different reason—putting Gordon in the catch-fence while under caution last week and then getting fought afterwards. It made for great TV, but it’s not exactly the kind of thing that gives a guy momentum heading into the final two races of the season.
My third and final pick of the week—the dark horse selection—is, after much deliberation, Juan Pablo Montoya.
Montoya’s Phoenix debut ended in an auspicious 33rd place run, and he struggled at the track early in his career, contributing to a middling 17.1 average finish in seven starts.
But in his past two runs Montoya’s made great strides. This time last year he placed eighth. In the spring of this year, he led 104 laps, including most of the middle of the race, to finish a solid fifth. No, he doesn’t dominate the track like Johnson, but would he really be a dark horse then?