Cup Drivers Face Drama In The Desert, Who Is Apt To Capture a Win?

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IFebruary 25, 2011

Cup Drivers Face Drama In The Desert, Who Is Apt To Capture a Win?

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    PHOENIX - APRIL 10:  Ryan Newman, driver of the #39 Tornados Chevrolet, celebrates with a burn out after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series SUBWAY Fresh Fit 600 at Phoenix International Raceway on April 10, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Jeff Gros
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    The NASCAR Super Bowl is in the record books and now the real season kicks off in the desert, but the dynamics from Daytona will not be as relevant when the Cup drivers head to Phoenix International Raceway.

    The two-car pairings that were such a part of the racing at Daytona is out the window.  Grip is gone in comparison to what they had on the new surface.  Handling becomes a major factor with car set-ups.

    New qualifying rules will begin based on those who have the slowest to fastest practice speeds hitting the track to secure their starting position.

    After this race, the Subway Fresh Fit 500, the one mile low-banked track is going to be repaved. 

    The front stretch will be widened, pit road reconfigured with concrete pit stalls, the dog leg between turns two and three will be pushed out 95 feet and the radius tightened.  The track will implement variable degree banking as well.

    The Ford FR-9 engines ran strong at Daytona, where keeping the engine temperatures down was critical.  Doug Yates, of Yates Racing, has worked hard on the cooling factor with these engines.  Most likely it will not be as advantageous at PIR.

    Carl Edwards won the November race at Phoenix.  Ryan Newman won the spring race at the track and ended a 77 winless drought.

    Jimmie Johnson found problems on the high-banks of Daytona, but the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion has won four of the last seven races at the desert track which could be problematic for the other 42 drivers.

    Even as Edwards sits atop the series point standings, there are unlikely names in the top ten that may face a challenge to remain there. 

    David Gilliland, Regan Smith, Paul Menard and Bobby Labonte will have an opportunity to prove they are the real deal this season as they fight to stay in the top-10 of the points.

    Let's take a look at the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers who most likely will be leading the charge to victory as the second race of the season unfolds at Phoenix International Raceway.

    The list is only a prediction of drivers contending for a win and not a ranking of their chances.

No.1 Jimmie Johnson

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, sits in his car in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2011 in Daytona Beach,
    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    The reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion has refocused from his dismal day at the Daytona 500.  Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, will now begin their quest for title number six.

    Johnson has four wins, 10 top-five and 13 top-10 finishes at Phoenix International Raceway with an average finish of 4.9.

    The driver with five consecutive titles in the top series of NASCAR is perhaps more mentally and physically prepared for the 2011 season than he has ever been.

No. 2 Mark Martin

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 17:  Mark Martin, driver of the #5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, stands on the grid prior to the first race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Gatorade Duel at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florid
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Mark Martin had a 10th place finish in the Daytona 500.  Winning is foremost on his mind as he traverses the last year with Hendrick Motorsports.

    Martin has two wins, 12 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes with an average finish of 8.6 at Phoenix International Raceway.  He and Johnson are the only drivers who have averaged top-10 finishes.

    The 52-year-old veteran driver is due for his 50th pole, so it will be interesting to see if he and his new crew chief, Lance McGrew, can make it happen.

No. 3 Jeff Gordon

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  Crew members work on the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet of Jeff Gordon during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Ph
    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    The Daytona 500 didn't go quite as well as Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, had hoped with his car caught up in a crashfest.

    Gordon is ready to prove he can win with his new crew chief, Alan Gustafson.  He is out from the shadow of his teammate Jimmie Johnson having moved in to the building with Mark Martin at HMS.

    At Phoenix, Gordon has one win, nine top-five and 17 top-10 finishes with an average of  10.4. 

No. 4 Carl Edwards

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Aflac Ford, looks on in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Phot
    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Carl Edwards drives the No. 99 Aflac Ford Fusion for Roush Fenway Racing.  After Daytona, he sits on top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings for whatever that is worth.

    Edwards won the last two races in 2010 and finished second in the Daytona 500.  If momentum is a factor, then Edwards looks to run strong at Phoenix as well.

    His record at the desert track shows one win, five top-five and nine top-10 finishes with an average finish of 11.8.

No. 5 Kevin Harvick

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 19:  Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Budweiser Chevrolet, looks on during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Matt
    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Kevin Harvick is behind the wheel of his black No. 29 Budweiser Chevy for Richard Childress Racing.  At Daytona two of the four RCR drivers, Harvick and Jeff Burton, had engine problems, but at Phoenix it should not be an issue.

    Harvick won both the spring and fall race at PIR in 2006.  His record shows the two wins, three top-five and seven top-10 finishes for an average of 14.4.

    Look for the stable of Childress drivers to be strong runners this season and Harvick is out to win and make his position in the Chase even stronger than it was last year when he finished third.

No. 6 Kurt Busch

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 17: Kurt Busch, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Dodge, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the first race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Gatorade Duel at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2011 in Daytona Be
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Kurt Busch had fun at Daytona with his No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Penske Dodge.  He won the Bud Shootout and ran well during his time on the high-banks with a win in one of the Gatorade Duels.

    Busch is showing that Penske power is for real this season, at least for the No. 22 car.  Presently he is fourth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings.

    His record at Phoenix International Raceway shows one win, four top-five and nine top-10 finishes with an average of 13.2.

No. 7 Jeff Burton

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 17:  Jeff Burton, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the second race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Gatorade Duel at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2011 in Dayton
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Jeff Burton, driver of the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevy for Richard Childress racing, went from the high of winning one of the Gatorade Duels at Daytona to the low of a failed engine during the Daytona 500.

    At PIR, Burton has a record of two wins, six top-five and 12 top-10 finishes with an average finish of 11.7.  Burton may well be a surprise contender for a win in the Subway Fresh Fit 500.

No. 8 Ryan Newman

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 17:  Ryan Newman, driver of the #39 U.S. Army Chevrolet, stands on the grid prior to the first race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Gatorade Duel at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Ryan Newman drives the No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet for Stewart Haas Racing.  During the offseason, the team of Newman and owner/driver Tony Stewart have worked very hard to have cars able to contend for wins.

    Newman's record at Phoenix International Raceway shows one win and five top-five finishes with an average of 20.2.

    Last season, Newman won this race and ended a winless drought of 77 races.  He looks to have the potential to finish in the top-10 and just maybe win the race once again.

No. 9 Tony Stewart

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet, looks on in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2011 in Daytona Be
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Tony Stewart is smiling more and looking more svelte this year as the owner/driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet.

    Preparation for this season has been intense at Stewart Haas Racing and he is ready to make the hard work pay off.

    His record at the Phoenix track shows one win, seven top-five and nine top-10 finishes with an average of 12.0.

No. 10 Kyle Busch

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 20:  Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M'sToyota, and his wife Samantha Sarcinella take part in pre-race ceremonies during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 20, 2011 in Dayton
    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Kyle Busch is married now, shows a bit more maturity behind the wheel and is ready to capture wins in his No. 18 M&M's Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing.

    Busch is serious about running for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title and may sacrifice some rides in the second and third series of NASCAR depending on how the Cup series plays out.

    The record for the young man, who never fails to show his personality, isn't too bad with one win, one top-five and seven top-10 finishes at Phoenix for an average of 13.8.

No. 11 Denny Hamlin

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 19:  Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Toyota, looks on in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Ph
    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Denny Hamlin has to be in this list, but where he will finish with his No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota from Joe Gibbs Racing is a tough bet.

    Hamlin had a great season last year and was runner-up to Champion, Jimmie Johnson.  At the end of last season and on into Daytona, Hamlin seems to find himself making mistakes that prove costly.

    He has not won at Phoenix, but has six top-10 finishes and an average of 11.6.  Hamlin is just as apt to win the Subway Fresh Fit 500 as he is to finish outside the top-10.

    If he and his team, led by crew chief Mike Ford, can keep their act together, wins should start to come for Hamlin.