NASCAR Sprint Cup: 10 Drivers Poised to Finish Better at Phoenix After Daytona

David DeNennoContributor IIIMarch 1, 2012

NASCAR Sprint Cup: 10 Drivers Poised to Finish Better at Phoenix After Daytona

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    After unrelenting rain forced the 2012 Daytona 500 to become a Monday night race for the first time in its illustrious history, NASCAR now heads to the desert of Phoenix International Raceway, where precipitation will be the least of the drivers' concerns.

    The track for the season's second race is nothing like Daytona, other than the fact that it has a start-finish line.

    It is flat and short: None of the four turns are banked at more than 12 degrees, and it is only one mile long.

    Needless to say, the cars will be going a bit slower at the Subway Fresh Fit 500, though the confines will be a little tighter.

    There is not an extreme amount of pressure on the drivers at this juncture of the season, though this will be the first race of 2012 where drivers are more likely to attempt to salvage points rather than win at all costs.

    Everyone wants to win, but this is the type of race that drivers and teams truly look to springboard their season upon.

    At Daytona, some drivers emerged truly disappointed with their performance.

    Here are 10 drivers who will almost certainly fare better than they did at the Daytona 500. Note that while Danica Patrick will be in Phoenix, she will only be participating in the Nationwide Series race.

Jimmie Johnson

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    It really cannot get any worse for Jimmie Johnson at this point in the season. After a Lap 2 crash that knocked him out of the Daytona 500 and garnered him a 42nd-place finish, there is nowhere for him to go but higher in the standings.

    Actually, it did get worse: NASCAR has announced that the failed inspection of Johnson's car will result in the suspension of his crew chief, Chad Knaus, for six races, as well as a penalty of 25 points.

    In other words, the two points that Johnson earned at Daytona are currently nullified. Surely, this is the lowest point total for Johnson in his career. He certainly holds the record for least amount of points under the new point system inculcated in 2011, factoring in the penalty.

    Aside from that, Johnson is the modern Sprint Cup master of Phoenix: His statistics there are more than just numbers. They are proof he has nothing to worry about right now.

    Johnson leads all Sprint Cup drivers in these categories at Phoenix: Best running position (6.3), best driver rating (118.2), best average green flag speed (124.357 mph) and most laps in the top 15 (3,994).

    He's in the basement of the standings after one race. He probably will not remain in that status after the race in Phoenix concludes.

Jeff Gordon

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    Jeff Gordon's Daytona wasn't much better than Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson's. His machine blew up on him before the midway point of the season kickoff.

    40th place was all he could muster.

    The winner of last year's Subway Fresh Fit 500 will certainly have a better showing at the second race of the season.

    Remember, this is when the "start-and-park" teams start starting and parking. There is too much money at stake to do so in the Daytona 500. The Phoenix payout is much less lucrative, and lower-tier teams will begin to show their true colors.

Kurt Busch

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    Kurt Busch finished one spot better than Jeff Gordon in his first race for his new team, Phoenix Racing. Like Gordon, he will perform better in Phoenix than he did at Daytona, almost by default.

    His average finish of 13.4 in the desert should leave no doubt that he will leave Phoenix (the track, not the team) in better standing than when he entered it.

    Like Gordon and Johnson, Busch has won there.

    Moreover, Kurt Busch has thrown a proverbial "perfect game" at Phoenix in the past, recording a perfect 150.0 driver rating when he won in 2005. Kevin Harvick is the only driver to equal that feat.

Juan Pablo Montoya

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    After a strange ending to his Daytona 500 that left both Montoya's No. 42 Target Chevrolet wrecked and a jet dryer truck much worse for the wear, Montoya has to be ready to finish strong in Phoenix.

    His statistics are not overly impressive there, but one has to imagine that sheer determination alone will thrust him to a better finish and better position in the standings than when he left Daytona.

A.J. Allmendinger

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    A.J. Allmendinger's 34th-place finish in his first race for owner Roger Penske was disappointing for both parties.

    'Dinger is under a lot of pressure to perform this year after replacing Kurt Busch in the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge Charger. He is expected to make the Chase, as well as get his first win in the Sprint Cup.

    He won his first career pole at Phoenix in 2010. Perhaps he could translate that into his first victory.

    Either way, he must do better. He knows it, and Roger Penske demands it. If he isn't poised to fare better, his stint at Penske Racing may be very abrupt.

Brad Keselowski

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    Brad Keselowski's 32nd-place finish in the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge "Beer Wagon" should not be considered a bad run for the young driver.

    Unlike the previous drivers mentioned, Keselowski was actually positioned well to make a strong finish at the Daytona 500 before he was wiped out with only 13 laps to go.

    Things are not looking up for Phoenix. His best finish in five tries has been 15th. Still, that more than doubles 32nd place, and Keselowski has improved immensely since his initial attempt in 2009 that only rewarded him with a 37th-place finish.

Kasey Kahne

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    Like Kurt Busch and A.J. Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne's first race for his new employer (Hendrick Motorsports) did not end up with the result for which he hoped.

    Last November, Kahne won the first race at Phoenix under its new configuration. He should do better than 29th place.

    Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson's performance allowed him to claim the second-best result from the Daytona 500. If he can do that consistently for the duration of the season, he will have accomplished a tremendous feat.

    However, finishes in the range of 29th will not hold up forever. He has to do better than that. He probably will—his last two finishes in Phoenix have elicited top-10 finishes. Barring disaster, Kahne will improve upon his current 26th place in the standings.

Kyle Busch

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    Kyle Busch has run 3,601 laps in the top 15 at Phoenix, second only to Jimmie Johnson. He has a victory there, as well.

    While his 17th-place post in Daytona was not horrendous, he should easily be able to improve upon that at Phoenix. In 14 tries, he has eight top-10 finishes, including a win.

    Expect Busch to be much more aggressive in the course of this race, as opposed to the confines of Daytona.

Ryan Newman

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    As a former Daytona 500 winner, Ryan Newman was probably not pleased with his 21st-place finish.

    No matter, as the "Rocket Man" is excellent on flat tracks, especially Phoenix. In his last four starts, he has finished in the top five all four times. It would not be a surprise if he won, either.

Tony Stewart

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    The defending Sprint Cup champ was solidly plodding along at the Daytona 500 until Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ran out of room, bumped him and caused some minor damage to the driver's side of his No. 14 Chevrolet.

    Still, Stewart managed a 16th-place finish at Daytona.

    However, after his 2011 Chase season, this had to feel a bit disappointing. In Phoenix, he averages just about 11th place. His last two finishes have been in the top 10. Smoke should do better at Phoenix.

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