Newly reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway produced great racing Sunday afternoon. The multiple grooves allowed for many different lines, plenty of side-by-side racing and even a few blown tempers.
Kasey Kahne took the day by the scruff of the neck and claimed a win as he signs off from Red Bull Racing in 2011, now looking forward to his time with Hendrick Motorsports. The win was his first since 2009 and came on a day that saw the team continually improve the chassis and work its way into a competitive position. It was a great result for such a terrific effort from Kahne and the team.
The final race of the season is on tap at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards will be the focus of the event, but others will gun to steal the spotlight. The championship contenders find themselves separated by just three points, and Stewart will have to beat Edwards on the track to claim the day - and the season. That task is easier said than done after the two battled closely all Sunday, each seemingly having an equal measure of the other.
The last few years since its reconfiguration, Homestead has become a competitive track. The hot sun can make the afternoon's run slippery, but multiple grooves in the track allow drivers to compensate more for an ill-handling car than most tracks. Fuel could become a factor, but hopefully hard racing will be all that decides the championship for 2011.
Carl Edwards – The best recent results of current drivers at Homestead-Miami Speedway belong to Edwards. In the last five races at the track, he claims two wins, three top-fives and no finishes outside the top 10. Statistics like that mean trouble for championship rival Tony Stewart. The pair finished nose to tail in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 and now will duke it out in Florida for the honor of hoisting the Sprint Cup. Edwards finished ahead of Stewart last week, but both were battling hard throughout the long race. You can barely slide a sheet of notebook paper between the two, and rest assured both will run their hardest again this week. Edwards makes a confident choice.
Kevin Harvick – Harvick's hopes in the championship Chase were officially dashed Sunday, but he could very well be a front-runner for the victory Sunday. His average finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway is 6.4 in the last five events, with four top-fives and eight total top-10s in his 10-race career at the track. He finished 19th in Phoenix, just one more example of a disappointing day that helped him lose traction against the championship leaders the last few weeks. Fantasy players shouldn't be too worried, though. Harvick has a habit of finding a way to come forward at the end of a race, and Homestead is a perfect opportunity to show what he has despite losing the Chase.
A.J. Allmendinger – Nine top-10s in 2011 prior to Phoenix make this season one of Allmendinger's best. Add to that tally one more top-10 finish earned in Phoenix, and you have the making of an attractive fantasy option this week. Allmendinger is coming on strong as the season winds down; just like he began it, if you remember. His momentum should carry him on an upward wave into one of the tracks where he has always performed like a star. Allmendinger has raced in the Sprint Cup three times in Miami, never finishing worse than 11th. He isn't a name that rises to the top of fantasy lists often, but this championship weekend should be an excellent opportunity to make the play.
Jimmie Johnson – The season finale has centered on Johnson the last five years. This year, it will not. Another disappointing result in Phoenix pushed Johnson down to fifth in the Chase standings and is emblematic of the 180-degree turn his luck took since his incredible string of championship runs. Johnson finished 14th Sunday in Phoenix, his second 14th-place result in a row. In his 10 career Miami starts, the No. 48 has only finished outside of the top 10 three times, though. His average finish at the track is 11.6 and climbs to 7.6 in the last five races. While Johnson has never won in Miami, he owns two poles and can consistently be considered a favorite despite the Chase luck he suffered in 2011.
Martin Truex Jr. – Despite finishing 20th in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500, Truex showed moments of greatness. He ran well within the top 10 for the first half of the race, and looked like he could be on pace to land his fourth consecutive top-10 finish. Things didn't go the team's way, though, but rest assured that Truex will be back this week. His record at Miami is a good, and the team is hungry to end the year on a high note. Truex looks likely to continue his strong run of finishes into the season finale based on his record at the track and his current form. His average finish from the last five races at the Florida oval is 7.6, including four top-10s and a worst finish of just 11th.
Kasey Kahne – Kahne had a fantastic afternoon in Phoenix, driving through the field to claim his first win since 2009, and what could be the last for Red Bull Racing. The team is exiting the series after this week's race, and Kahne is heading to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012. His average finish in Miami is a strong 11.4. And coupled with his victory last weekend, Kahne is a driver not to ignore. His Miami record includes two poles, a top-five and another top-10 in the last five races. Plus, we've seen how important momentum can be this season. It is clearly on Kahne's side with last week's win, and fantasy owners should take notice.
Kyle Busch – The despair that Busch suffered last week after being forced to sit out the weekend may have seemed compassionate compared to the disappointment of his blown engine Sunday. Phoenix was shaping up to be a rebound effort after running extremely well before the trouble struck. He started deep in the field, but worked his way into the top five before mechanical gremlins caused the engine to expire. To magnify his downturn, simply examine his Miami statistics. He has never finished strong at Miami, claiming just one top-10 from the last five races there. His best finish at the track was eighth in the 2009 Ford 400, but his average finish in six tries is a very disappointing 26.3.
Juan Pablo Montoya – Montoya claims a best finish of 15th at Homestead-Miami Speedway in his short five-race career at the track. Interestingly, 15th was where Montoya also finished last weekend in Phoenix. When he isn't angering other drivers on track, Montoya is trying to find the speed Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing showed in 2010. It hasn't been found in 2011, and both Montoya and his team know they'll have to work hard this winter to close the gap. Fantasy owners need a lot more than statistics like that 15th-place finish this week, though. His average finish in his five-race career at the track is 27.8, and with his rowdy driving style this season, Montoya makes a risky fantasy option this week.
Brian Vickers – Frustration from Martinsville Speedway bubbled to the surface when Vickers pushed Matt Kenseth hard into a turn and into the wall, ending his already dimming championship hopes. Vickers clearly did all he could to push Kenseth into the turn faster than he could handle, and the result was two damaged cars and a 23rd-place result for the No. 83 team. Miami is one track where Vickers has never gotten the job done. Seven career starts at the Florida oval have earned Vickers a best finish of just 18th. His average result at the track is 30.0. Red Bull Racing is leaving NASCAR Sprint Cup after this race, and it would be nice for Vickers to give the team a parting gift, but that doesn't appear likely.
David Reutimann – Reutimann's 24.5 average finish in his four career races at Miami is nothing that will excite fantasy owners. He simply has not finished well at the track despite claiming a pole in the 2008 Ford 400. This will be Reutimann's last race with Michael Waltrip Racing, but the numbers don't suggest that it will produce anything better than we've come to expect from the 41-year-old in Miami. He exits Phoenix with his third top-10 finish of the season, but that is his best result since July at Kentucky Speedway. The momentum from last week's top-10 shouldn't be enough of a boost to overcome a career of poor finishes at the Florida oval.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Lack of consistency continues to plague Earnhardt and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team. Just one week after claiming a top-10 finish at Texas Motor Speedway, his second top-10 in a row, Earnhardt fell back in the running to finish 24th in Phoenix. The ups and downs this team has experienced in 2011 shows it has potential to move forward but still has plenty of land to plow. To make things even more challenging, Miami might be one of Earnhardt's most difficult tracks. His average finish in the last five races there is 30.2. In his 11 career Miami starts, the best classification he can boast is 13th from the 2000 Pennzoil 400. Earnhardt's likely fate this week is not one with which fantasy owners should gamble.