After the unique challenges of a week at Daytona International Speedway, and a day-and-a-half of delay, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last weekend rolled into Phoenix International Raceway, another of NASCAR's unique challenges. Despite the lack of exploding jet dryers, Phoenix still put on a great show, creating plenty of close racing on the newly reconfigured track.
As if the track reconfiguration - integrating progressive banking - wasn't challenge enough, the hot Arizona sun made things even touchier. Drivers struggled with grip from the beginning of the first practice. The greasiness of the surface caused a number of drivers to wiggle and even created some contact.
A few drivers got their setups right for the day, and each battled throughout the distance. Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin all had a great day, leading laps and pushing for a win. In the end, Hamlin pulled ahead of a charging Harvick, who ran just one lap short of fuel.
This week, the series turns its sights to Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The track has traditionally been an outpost for Hendrick Motorsports, and Jimmie Johnson more specifically, but Roush Fenway Racing has also made its presence known.
The second desert oval in two weeks is a 1.5-mile tri-oval, like many of NASCAR Sprint Cup's tracks. Unlike the rest, the Vegas track often provides something a little more exciting. Its progressive banking has produces a plethora of side-by-side racing, and pit strategy often determines the victor.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin, with his Phoenix win, brings a ton of momentum to a track at which he excels. Las Vegas Motor Speedway has given Hamlin three top-10s, including a top-5, in the last five races. His average finish in that time is 12.0 and includes just one finish off the lead lap. After eight wins in 2010, the Virginian wasn't happy with his championship runner-up effort that year. Rest assured, he was down in the dumps last year, and he wants to make up for it now. Two races into the 2012 season show he is coming back with a vengeance, scoring two top-5s and showing no sign of slowing down. This is a judicious choice.
Carl Edwards – Edwards owns the best average finish from the last five Las Vegas races. He gambled on a two-tire stop late in last year's Kobalt Tools 400 and claimed his second victory at the Nevada oval. Contact dented his hopes of producing a strong finish at Phoenix, but he still salvaged a 17th-place result, which keeps him in the top 10 in points. The Roush Fenway Ford appears to have a horsepower advantage over the competition this season, and Las Vegas' progressive banking should allow Edwards to drive off of the corners with more force than his challengers. The No. 99 is poised for a big finish this week, and fantasy players would be wise to ride the wave.
Jeff Burton – In the last five races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Burton has scored more points than any driver. His 606 total is the result of five lead-lap finishes and two top-5s. His average finish in that span is 11.0, and he led 75 laps. Burton fell off of the pace late in the running last week in Phoenix, but had been a contender until his machinery failed him. Burton's 2011 season was nothing short of a disaster, and you can assume that the veteran driver will not put up with another season of the same. He should leverage the lessons he and the team learned last year, improve on last week's efforts and finish strong at Las Vegas.
Greg Biffle – Two races so far in 2012 have produced two top-5s for Biffle. If you include the two non-points races run at Daytona, Biffle hasn't yet finished outside the top 10. Two make things even more enticing for fantasy owners, Biffle doesn't lack pedigree at Las Vegas, either. His average finish in the last five races is 12.8, including a top-5 and two other top-10s. Quietly, Biffle is making the garage take notice that he is a contender this season. Momentum is king in this series, and Biffle is leveraging his Roush advantage so far. If the performance continues, Biffle will no doubt find Victory Lane this season, and it could be as early as this week.
Jimmie Johnson – Two wins in the last five Las Vegas events make Johnson a reliable fantasy option this week. The team is still embroiled in the drama of its Daytona penalties, but Johnson isn't one to let off-track issues affect his on-track performance. He was one of the fastest drivers as the Phoenix race got under way and rarely left the front of the field as the race wore on. The top-5 he scored Sunday proves that adversity will be overcome. Johnson has something to prove after losing his grip on the championship in 2011, and faltering at Daytona. It won't be long until his iron grip on the front of the pack begins to choke out would-be challengers. Johnson could be considered a fantasy favorite this week.
Juan Pablo Montoya – While he has consistently improved on ovals the last few seasons, Montoya hasn't gotten the hang of things at Las Vegas. He scored one top-5 finish at the track in the last five races there, but has failed to finish on the lead lap three of those tries. His 11th-place finish at Phoenix was enough to show that the jet dryer incident hasn't affected him, but he will need a stronger performance to move forward from the poor results plaguing the team the last few seasons. Montoya and the Earnhardt-Ganassi racing team have not found a cure for what ails them yet, and 2012 is starting as another year in the gutter. Fantasy players should take caution.
Kurt Busch – Just one top-10 finish at Las Vegas in the last five races is all Busch can boast. His average finish in that span is 26.2, one of the lowest averages of active drivers. His new home at Phoenix Racing is supposed to make racing fun again, but how many finishes outside the top 10 does it take before fun becomes futile? He admirably drove to a 15th-place finish at Phoenix, and will continue to give each race his all, but it is going to take a special set of circumstances for everything to fall in place. Considering Busch's suspect record at this week's track, fantasy owners should wait to use this dark-horse play for another time.
Jamie McMurray – McMurray led one lap at Phoenix, but quickly ended his day with an engine issue. The day marked the second race of two this season that have ended in disappointment. Looking ahead, he scored two top-10 finishes in the last five Vegas events, but only managed to etch an average finish of 21.0 in that period. Three finishes off the lead lap at the desert track indicate that McMurray not only has to overcome the troubles he's facing this season but also some demons of the past at Las Vegas. Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing struggled in 2011 after showing promise in 2010, and it looks as though it hasn't mastered the issues quite yet, either. Fantasy owners should look for fortunes to change before selecting McMurray.
Ryan Newman – Late in Sunday's race, Newman entered a turn with Carl Edwards and ended up backward into the wall. Edwards wiggled and came into contact with the No. 39, but it was Newman who immediately had to pit for repairs, finishing 21st. At Las Vegas, he has two top-10s, including a top-5, in the last five races, but Newman only led one lap through those miles and scored an average finish of 14.0. Those aren't terrible numbers, but with two races where Newman has had to overcome mistakes in the last two weeks, he may not be the most confident play this weekend. If there is anything we know about NASCAR, it is that drivers tend to streak, and Newman looks like he is on a bad one at the moment.
Clint Bowyer – Two times in just about as many laps Bowyer found himself in the wall at Phoenix. He cut two right-front tires and hit the wall solidly in the second incident. Things don't look great this week, either. He ranks 20th among active racers in average finishes through the last five Las Vegas races, but he failed to finish on the lead lap two of those tries. Bowyer finished 11th in the Daytona 500 with new team Michael Waltrip Racing but has work to do after Phoenix. In total, Bowyer only led 14 laps in five Vegas tries, yet he has competed there six times in Cup competition. In 2009 and 2010 he had some mild success with two top-10s, but his other four tries have ended with finishes 15th or lower.
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