NASCAR 2011: Previews and Predictions For Sunday's Sprint Cup Race at Phoenix

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IFebruary 24, 2011

AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 14:  Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Aflac Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 14, 2010 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

The first change on the 2011 schedule comes this weekend, as the Sprint Cup Series makes a trip out west to Phoenix.

Last year, the Phoenix race was a few weeks down the road, while the second race of the season belonged to Auto Club Speedway.

The Sprint Cup Series made two trips to the Grand Canyon State last year and both times, the winner seemingly had the win fall into their hands.

In the first race, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson dominated much of the event, but a late race caution threw everything up in the air.

Busch, Johnson and most of the other leaders came down pit road and took on four tires.

The cars of Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin all opted to change just two tires and take their chances that with just two or three laps remaining, they could hold off the cars that took four and possibly steal a good finish.

For all three drivers, it was mission accomplished. Martin finished fourth, Gordon was the runner up and Newman was able to hold everyone at bay, scoring his first win since the 2008 Daytona 500. It would be his only win of the year.

In the second trip to Phoenix, Denny Hamlin was looking to increase his points lead, as this was the second to last race of the season. He was well on his way to doing so, but was forced to make a pit stop with less than 15 laps to go, for fear of running out of gas before the checkered flag waved.

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This handed the lead over to Carl Edwards, who was on the same pit sequence as Hamlin, but was electing to gamble on fuel and stayed out.

The gamble paid off, as Edwards had enough left in the tank to score his first win since the 2008 season finale at Homestead. Meanwhile, Hamlin was the big loser on the day.

After being on his way to what looked like a dominating win and a big increase in his points lead, he was left with a 12th place finish.

So, will this year's first race at Phoenix bring us the same kind of late race excitement?

From a fans standpoint, we can only hope so, but realistically, it seems like we got our fill a season ago.

If you are looking for potential winners, there are a whole host of drivers who run strong at this track. At the top of the list would have to be Carl Edwards. He is the most recent winner at the one mile track and he is the hottest driver on the circuit right now.

Edwards has won two of the last three Sprint Cup Series races and finished second in the other one, which was last weekend's Daytona 500.

Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin all typically run very strong at Phoenix and should be in contention as well.

Kurt Busch is coming off one of the more successful Speedweeks in recent memory. He won the Bud Shootout, then backed it up with a win in his Duel race. Finally, he finished fifth in the Daytona 500 after being one of the stronger cars all day long.

The elder Busch brother has turned in some pretty strong runs at Phoenix in the last few races there, so don't count him out either.

And, of course, there is always Jimmie Johnson. Johnson has been near perfect in Phoenix over the course of his career. In 15 starts, he won four times. He has finished in the top 10 on 13 occasions and 10 of those are inside the top five.

His worst finish at Phoenix is 15th and he has completed every lap of the 4,750 that have been run there over the course of those 15 races.

If he is not in your fantasy lineups for the weekend, you have no business playing.

A driver to keep an eye on, that may be flying under some people's radars would be Martin Truex Jr. In his last seven starts at this track, Truex has four top 10's and if you don't pay attention to the fall race of 2008, where early mechanical issues forced him out of the race very early, his worst finish is 17th.

Look for Truex to possibly play the role of spoiler this coming weekend.

So, while race No. 2 on the Sprint Cup schedule, regardless of the venue will never match the excitement or intensity of Daytona, that doesn't mean we can't expect some quality racing.

There are a lot of drivers who typically run strong at Phoenix and when there are a lot of cars with the potential to win, that can only be a good thing for the fans watching in the stands, or at home.