Handicapping the Chase Drivers: Phoenix International Raceway

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Handicapping the Chase Drivers: Phoenix International Raceway

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Sorry, guys. For some reason, I thought I posted my column last week, but when I looked for it here on the site, it was mysteriously not there. I picked the winner correctly, I called everybody but Jimmie Johnson irrelevant (oh, how wrong I was), and I even made reference to Tommy Tutone when I wrote about Denny Hamlin.

So, of course, my best work goes for naught when I don’t actually end up putting it up for the world to see. (Then again, now I can recycle my “Denny, Denny, who can I turn to” next year.)

In other words, it looks like I had a massive brain fart. Or, as Jack Roush would suggest, I’ve had my “mulligan” for the Chase. Just read the best nine columns out of ten, right?

Here’s what to expect from each of the 12 Chase drivers this week at Phoenix:

1. Jimmie Johnson: Best average finish of every driver at Phoenix, incredible Chase, last guy to win here, blah, blah, blah. Johnson’s run last week, while not catastrophic, left the door open for Edwards. Then again, don’t be surprised if Jimmie comes through in the clutch. That’s what Team 48 does.

2. Carl Edwards: Carl’s average finish of 14.5 is negatively affected by the 42nd place he had at this race last year, when his engine let go in the first half of the race. That can’t happen again.

Carl’s got a lot of momentum from the past two weeks, and he has a chance at winning four in a row and mimicking Johnson’s huge run at the end of last year. Given his record at Phoenix when things go right (5 top-10s), it’s definitely possible.

3. Greg Biffle: Da Biff is painfully average overall at Phoenix, with an average finish of 16.4, but the finishes themselves are often polarized. Biffle has two 2nd place finishes at the track, as well as two finished of 34th place or lower.

The question is simply whether the team will have one of the former or the latter come race day. With the way the team’s been since the debacle at Talladega, look for the former.

4. Jeff Burton: Betcha didn’t know that JB’s got two wins here. It’s true; he won this race in 2000 and 2001. Betcha also had no idea that Burton’s worst finish at Phoenix in the past decade is 15th in fall 2005. His 11.1 average finish here is in the top five of all active drivers. There’s no reason he can’t pull off another decent finish.

5. Jeff Gordon: Gordon’s only win at Phoenix was here in 2007, but he still has an average finish of 8.5. Here’s to hoping he wins this weekend, if only because winning at least once every year since 1994 is a huge accomplishment. His average finish of 8.5 is second only to Johnson.

6. Clint Bowyer: Bowyer made his Cup debut at Phoenix, finishing 22nd in the spring of 2005. Since then, he’s only failed to complete eight laps at the track, and has two top-5s, including a 2nd place this spring.

The team is a far cry from where they were at this time last year, but a 4th at Texas last week proves that they’re still capable of top finishes.

7. Kevin Harvick: Happy hasn’t won at Phoenix since sweeping in 2006, but he’s also been a solid contender for the past few years. Since the spring of 2006, his average finish is an astounding 7.6 with four top-10s. Then again, Harvick’s only spent 23 laps at the front of the field all Chase, so don’t count on a momentum-based win.

8. Matt Kenseth: Kenseth’s average finish of 18.8 is due to an extreme polarization of finishes. When he’s good (a win in 2002, six top-10s), he’s good. When he’s bad (five finishes of 32nd or worse), he’s bad.

Case in point: Kenseth led 93 laps to finish 3rd in this race last year, but finished 38th here this year in the spring. He’s a high-risk, high-reward pick, but given his last three finishes (average: 7.0), the reward may be there for the taking.

9. Tony Stewart: Stewart has been running at the finish all 13 times he’s started a Phoenix race. His average finish of 9.8 is tops among Toyota drivers, and he’s only finished worse than 18th once.

Smoke wants to go out at Joe Gibbs Racing with a bang, and building on that impressive Phoenix resume would sure help. An interesting note: Stewart’s eight top-10s are as many as his teammates, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, have combined for in the same amount of starts between them.

10. Kyle Busch: Cheers to Shrub regaining the final position at NASCAR’s end-of-season awards banquet, for now. Securing that seat, however, will require him to build on his somewhat stellar record at Phoenix.

Busch has five top-10s in seven starts here, with the only exceptions coming in 2006. He’s led laps at the track before, and he’s been stellar in most of the past few races. There’s a chance that he might snag one more Cup win before the year is out.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: One point behind Busch for the final banquet spot, Junebug goes to a track where he has two wins, four top-5s, and six top-10s. He led 87 laps at Phoenix in the spring on the way to a 7th place finish. It’ll take another performance like that to bring him back into the top 10.

12. Denny Hamlin: I predict Hamlin will finish 3rd this weekend. Hey, when it’s happened three times in six starts at the track, it seems like a safe enough bet. For the record, his other finishes are 13th, 34th, and a 16th at this time last year.

So who would I pick to win this weekend? I’m going to go out on a limb and say Jeff Gordon’s due. Hendrick ought to do his best to give Gordon the best car on the track this weekend and keep that 14-year winning streak alive, even if it means making Johnson a bit more vulnerable for Homestead.

Let’s make the title fight a real fight, boys.

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