The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rolls into the Arizona desert this week after a few electric weeks at Daytona International Speedway. The season started strong for Kevin Harvick, who won two races in Speedweeks, and Kyle Busch who also picked up a Cup win in his Duel qualifying race, but it was Jimmie Johnson who kicked the year off with the biggest win of all.
After Danica Patrick led the field to the green flag Sunday, Jeff Gordon jumped out to the lead for the opening segment. Patrick made history by leading some laps later in the running, while her team owner Tony Stewart spent time repairing his ride in the garage. There were crashes and mechanical failures, and perseverance won the day.
This weekend's race poses an entirely different challenge to teams. Phoenix International Raceway is a 1-mile tri oval with distinctive corners. The setup that works best will be a compromise that enables a driver to carry as much speed as possible through each of the differently banked turns. The track has a tendency to change throughout the course of an event, so an adjustable setup will also pay big dividends.
Jimmie Johnson - Confounding the statistics, Johnson motored his car to the lead in the closing laps of Sunday's race and held on to win his second Daytona 500. It was a perfect start to the season, especially considering many of his closest competitors encountered problems throughout the race. Things could just keep rolling for the No. 48 this week too. His last five Phoenix runs have given him three top-5s and an 11.6 average finish. Johnson, when on top, is one of the hardest to beat, and Sunday's win puts him atop the points for a charge to earn a sixth Sprint Cup.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick won last November's AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix. He is coming off of a solid Speedweeks at Daytona, winning his Duel qualifying race as well as the Sprint Unlimited. His average finish in the last five Phoenix races is 6.4, tops among current drivers, and includes three top-5s and one additional top-10. He was an unlucky accomplice in the first wreck of the Daytona 500, getting hit from behind as he tried to avoid spinning vehicles. That contact ruined his race, and he didn't even finish inside the top 40 as a result. This week dawns anew for the No. 29, and Harvick will put a disappointing season-opening points race behind him.
Ryan Newman - One race into the season, and Newman already has one top-5 finish in the bag. Newman has always raced well at Daytona, winning the 500 in 2008, and he did so again Sunday. He kept his car clean for all 500 miles, avoiding many of the troubles that took others out of the running, and finished a solid fifth. Through the last five Phoenix races Newman has performed among the best. His average finish in that time is 7.6, and only once in that span did he finish outside the top 10. He won the 2010 Subway Fresh Fit 600 in Phoenix, and should be well poised for another quality points race this week.
Denny Hamlin - With his win in the 2012 Subway Fresh Fit 500, Hamlin makes a strong pick for this weekend's return to the desert. His average finish in the last five races at the track is equal to Newman's at 7.6, but includes fewer top-10 finishes. His two teammates dropped out of Sunday's 500 within a lap of each other when all three were running in the top 5, but Hamlin fought on. He led quite a few laps Sunday but was only able to finish 14th when all was said and done. Hamlin could be a little more risky than other options this week, but he has still managed to finish on the lead lap in each of those past five Phoenix races.
Austin Dillon - Dillon was another impressive 2012 rookie at Daytona. He drove with the maturity of a veteran and finished well in his qualifying Duel, proving he could be a contender when the race came along. Halfway through the race he was caught in one of the chain-reaction incidents that are common in restrictor plate races. However, this week could give him a boost. At Phoenix, his two Nationwide Series starts gave him two top-10 finishes. This is a young, talented driver who has one of the best teams in the sport behind him. He will show moments of inexperience this season, but he could be a great dark-horse choice this week.
Brad Keselowski - Keselowski's Daytona 500 got off to a rough start when he was involved in an eight-car crash early, which compounded when he was nearly spun out after the halfway point. Damage from the early crash and time for repairs pushed him outside the top 30 before 75 laps were complete, but he was back in the lead in the closing miles and battled back to finish an astounding fourth. He may be last season's champion, and one to watch this season, but Keselowski has not been the man to get the job done at Phoenix. His last five races at the track racked up a DNF and just two lead-lap finishes. His average finish in that time is 17.2, despite recording two top-10s and a top-5.
Clint Bowyer - Just one lead-lap finish in the last five Phoenix races should be clear indication that Bowyer is a driver to avoid this weekend. Despite recording just one DNF in that time, he still managed to miss finishing with the leaders thrice. In his sole lead-lap finish in that span, Bowyer scored a top-10. Unfortunately, with a 23.2 average result, his Phoenix statistics don't suggest to expect much this week. Even looking further back in his career at the track, his average finish from 15 starts is only 17.7. He finished 11th in Sunday's 500 and kicked off the year with a solid run, but there are more reliable drivers this week in Phoenix.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Junior finished second in Sunday's Daytona 500, but this week the series heads to a track where he has underperformed expectations. He finished on the lead lap in three of the last five Phoenix races but only picked up one top-10 in the process. His results at the track haven't been stellar, and fantasy owners might want to wait to use Earnhardt at other tracks where he is more likely to exceed expectations. The season is off to a good start for the No. 88 with a Daytona top-5 already in the bag. Certainly, more will come as the season rolls on, but this week could pose a higher hurdle.
Juan Pablo Montoya - Another week, and another downgrade for Montoya. He was involved in the first crash of Sunday's race, ruining his car and any hope he had of starting the new season on a stronger foot. Things could be a struggle again this week for the No. 42, however, since Montoya hasn't experienced the best of times at the desert oval. In his last five Phoenix tries the former Formula 1 driver has failed to score a top finish, amassing a 14.6 average finish. His qualifying efforts at the track haven't been great either, at 21.8. So far we haven't seen anything to indicate that Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing turned the corner from dismal 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Carl Edwards - Leaving Daytona with five wrecked racecars was not the notoriety Edwards hoped to take from this year's Speedweeks. Luck simply was not on the side of Edwards, who damaged too many cars to have the team do much of anything other than affect repairs. While he does carry a win from the last five Phoenix races, Edwards will hope simply to escape this weekend without damage. His average finish in his last five Phoenix tries is 11.8, with four lead-lap finishes. That isn't a disappointment, however; with the trauma he and the team worked through at Daytona a clean finish would feel like a victory. Fantasy owners expect more than that.
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Radune was named the 2012 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.