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The Profit on CNBC 500 Preview: Celebrating 50 Years of PIR

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

With the caution flags, wrecks and twisted sheet metal of the Daytona 500 now well in our rearview mirror, we head this week to a much different venue for race No. 2 of the season. This week NASCAR's top racing series stops at one of the more unique tracks on the circuit, Phoenix International Raceway. The track at Avondale, Ariz., is an irregular "D-shaped" oval with very flat banking in the corners of nine to 11 degrees. The straights are completely flat, and very fast as they carry off into the sweeping corners. This oval is completely different than the high banks of Daytona International Speedway. Phoenix boasts the high speeds that borders on intermediate ovals with the close confines of short track racing as well. As we saw in last season's event there should be several lead changes and plenty of excitement which should lead to a close finish and very entertaining race.

Phoenix International Raceway celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The one-mile, low-banked tri-oval opened in 1964 and was originally conceived as the western home of open-wheel racing. In PIR's early years, the oval played host to USAC and Sports Cars. In later years CART and IndyCar came to the Arizona oval and put on events for race fans. It wasn't until 1978 that NASCAR came calling to the Desert Jewel; however, it would be another 10 years before NASCAR's top division, the Sprint Cup Series, would schedule its first race at PIR. For the last 25 years, stock car racing has brought all kinds of changes and improvements to the facility. Phoenix has grown into two annual Cup dates, which are both crucial races in respect to how early and how late in the schedule they occur. Over the years we've seen first-time winners, repeat winners, and even season-sweeps at PIR. The unique oval has become an important track in the Sprint Cup Series lineup,

Since we are making our first stop of the season in the Arizona desert this week, we can only really look back on past statistics for Phoenix International Raceway. Since this style of racing is such a big departure from the first race of the season at Daytona, we're not ready to start tracking trends just yet. The recent loop statistics at PIR will be the most important data we will examine this week. The historical trends at the Phoenix oval are as important as anywhere in the Sprint Cup Series schedule. The loop stats in the table below cover the last nine years or 18 races at Phoenix International Raceway.

Jimmie Johnson6.14985748485,009116.7
Kevin Harvick11.14183084904,334101.3
Carl Edwards10.93993543863,865100.0
Jeff Gordon13.14102222734,56399.4
Tony Stewart13.04402204004,14699.2
Denny Hamlin10.93822374173,89498.2
Kurt Busch13.33862875213,95398.0
Kyle Busch13.55272485094,50597.4
Greg Biffle13.83922863893,24291.6
Ryan Newman18.148782933,72387.1
Matt Kenseth17.34091721533,34486.1
Brad Keselowski17.1240135601,58185.9
Jeff Burton13.24728273,38784.1
Dale Earnhardt Jr.17.82721461992,56784.0
Martin Truex Jr.17.83521531013,06783.9
A.J. Allmendinger15.722041171,73482.1
Clint Bowyer17.131889212,86481.2
Kasey Kahne18.9328159552,83580.0
Joey Logano17.121239331,73479.7
Marcos Ambrose17.62193801,40676.5

With Kevin Harvick's victory here last fall, the veteran driver has now won four career races at PIR, and two of the last three. Harvick's victory in last fall's AdvoCare 500 came at the expense of Carl Edwards. He out-battled the Roush Fenway Racing star and passed him with just two-laps to go. The comeback win foiled Edwards' effort to put his Ford in victory lane for the second time last season and break out the brooms for the season-sweep. If Chevrolet hopes to keep control at Phoenix International Raceway, their hopes will largely ride with the No. 4 Chevrolet and Harvick. Considering the good week he just had at Daytona, this isn't a stretch at all. Jimmie Johnson will also carry that baton for Chevrolet. The Hendrick Motorsports star has four career wins at the one-mile oval, but the last of those came in 2009. In all this talk about Chevy and Ford, let's not forget about Toyota. The Joe Gibbs Racing camp should be well represented in this race as well. Denny Hamlin was the last Toyota driver to win in the Arizona desert. That victory came in 2012. Considering the monster performance he just had at Daytona during Speedweeks, he comes to Avondale with a tremendous amount of momentum. He will be joined by the duo of Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth who've enjoyed periods of success at PIR. In recent years, Brad Keselowski has enjoyed a lot of success at this irregular oval. Considering that he has two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in his last four trips to PIR, we have to keep a close eye on the driver of the No. 2 Ford as well. We'll highlight the teams mentioned above, and some others who will be vying for the win at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday afternoon.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick -
Phoenix International Raceway is one of Harvick's top statistical ovals. He's a four-time winner at the facility, including two of the last three events and he has Top-5 finishes in four of his last six starts there. Only three other drivers have led more laps in the last nine years at PIR, so clearly Harvick possesses a gift at this one-mile oval. The veteran driver's new No. 4 team at Stewart Haas Racing needs to get off to a good start this season, so this is a timely visit to PIR. In the Sprint Cup Series last visit to the Arizona desert, Harvick started ninth, led 70 laps and outdueled Carl Edwards in the closing laps to capture the victory.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin has been arguably the best short track driver in the series the last few seasons. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has one victory at Phoenix, which came in this race two years ago. Hamlin cracks the Top 5 in better than 47 percent of his starts at PIR. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led well over 400 laps for his career at Phoenix, and he's usually no worse than a Top-10 finisher. Given the great start to the season and awesome Speedweeks he just completed at Daytona, Hamlin comes to Phoenix International Raceway this weekend riding a tidal wave of momentum. He should challenge for the win in Sunday's The Profit on CNBC 500.

Carl Edwards -
The Roush Fenway Racing star is a two-time winner at the Arizona short track. Edwards very nearly swept Phoenix International Raceway last season. After winning this event one year ago the driver of the No. 99 Ford returned in the fall and had things well in hand in the closing laps before his gas tank ran dry and foiled his hopes for the win. Edwards' 386 career laps led and 12.3 average finish at PIR are stats among the best in the Sprint Cup Series at this oval. There's just something about this track and Edwards that clicks. No matter how well he's racing entering Phoenix weekend, he's always on his "A" game here.

Jimmie Johnson -
The Hendrick Motorsports star has incredible stats at the Phoenix oval. Johnson is a four-time winner at PIR and that leads all active drivers in the Sprint Cup Series. He had second- and third-place finishes at the track last year, including the pole position in the race held just last November. Johnson's miniscule 6.3 career average finish at Phoenix International Raceway shows the excellence and consistency that the No. 48 team shows each time we visit this flat oval. If Johnson isn't pulling into victory lane this Sunday afternoon, he won't be far from it.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is a one-time winner at PIR, and he has been absolutely dominant at this oval in recent seasons. His well over 400 laps led at this facility since 2010 are among the most in the series. Busch will set out to collect the richly-deserved victory that he has narrowly missed at PIR the last few seasons. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has 11 career Top 10s in 18 starts at Phoenix and that works out to an impressive 61-percent Top-10 rate at the flat short track. When Busch isn't vying for the win he's not often outside the Top 10, and that's a reliable stat you can count on with your fantasy race team.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
With the Daytona 500 victory, Earnhardt has erased a lot of pressure and anxiety that has built up over years. In this case a single victory, given its significance, could be just what the doctor ordered to elevate this driver's performance to new heights. After winning two victories at Phoenix International Raceway earlier in his career, Earnhardt suffered a mid-career malaise at the oval from about 2007 to 2012. Last season the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet began to reverse those trends. He led 47 laps and finished fifth in this race one year ago, and he returned in the fall to post an even better fourth-place finish. Now coming to PIR riding as tall as ever, Earnhardt should have his expectations set high in the Profit on CNBC 500.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon's two victories and 20 career Top-10 finishes lead all active drivers at PIR. The Hendrick Motorsports star has led well over 400 laps at the one-mile flat track and he has won here as recently as 2011. These stats all combine to make Gordon a career achievement driver at Phoenix International Raceway. Coming off the Top-5 finish at Daytona, the No. 24 Chevrolet team is coming to the Arizona desert a hungry bunch this weekend. Considering that Gordon cracks the Top 10 at a stellar 67-percent rate at Phoenix International Raceway that makes him a great fantasy play this Sunday afternoon.

Brad Keselowski -
The 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion comes to Phoenix to continue the pursuit of a second championship in 2014. The Penske Racing star will be making his tenth start at this flat Arizona oval this weekend. While his career numbers are lacking, Keselowski's recent stats at this oval are starting to trend way up. That leads us to be very optimistic that the driver of the No. 2 Ford likes the newer configuration of this track. Keselowski has led laps in each of his last five starts at PIR. Over that span he's claimed two Top 5s and three Top 10s. We have a strong feeling that a career-best Phoenix finish awaits the talented driver this weekend.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Phoenix who can provide a solid finish

Joey Logano -
The driver of the No. 22 Ford has maintained a solid resume at the one-mile Arizona oval since moving from Gibbs to Penske. Logano owns four Top 10s in 10 starts at the track, including last fall's AdvoCare 500 where he finished ninth. He led 33 laps in that race, which were Logano's first laps led at the desert oval. We expect the improvement to continue for this driver at PIR into this season. Logano didn't get quite the finish he deserved at Daytona last weekend, so we should see a real motivated Penske Racing bunch when we travel to Phoenix this weekend.

Greg Biffle -
Biffle's career numbers at Phoenix lack the pop to make us stand up and pay attention, but his recent body of work is what grabs our eye. The veteran driver of the No. 16 Ford has two Top 10s in his last four trips to the flat oval. That's above his career Top-10 average of 40-percent at the Avondale raceway. BIffle tends to be an early season performer, so this race at PIR is usually the better of the two events for the Roush Fenway Racing driver. Considering that the No. 16 team is coming off a great Speedweeks at Daytona, we're quite confident that Biffle will hit the ground running in Phoenix.

Ryan Newman -
The sneaky-good fantasy racing play for the Profit on CNBC 500 is Newman. What most people may not realize is that the veteran driver's career numbers are a bit shaky at the one-mile oval, but recent seasons have been nothing short of outstanding for the driver of the No. 31Chevrolet. Newman has a victory, a runner-up finish and five Top 5s in his last eight races at Phoenix International Raceway. He has rather quietly amassed these numbers in the last four seasons. Newman could really be seen as more of a solid play than a sleeper this week, although a Top-10 finish is nearly a lock.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne is a one-time winner at PIR and he's been very competitive at this facility since the repaving and configuration change a few seasons ago. Three of his last five trips to the Arizona desert have yielded Top-5 finishes. The No. 5 Chevrolet team will be looking to rebound from their crash and early exit from last weekend's Daytona 500. We think the one-mile oval of Phoenix International Raceway will be just the place for a rebound effort for Kahne. Considering how good he and crew chief Kenny Francis have been at PIR, don't be surprised if you see Kahne finish inside the Top 5 on Sunday afternoon.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
Coming off a great Top-10 finish at Daytona, the Roush Fenway driver heads to Phoenix with a lot of momentum. Stenhouse has two career starts at Phoenix International Raceway. He netted respectable 16th- and 12th-place finishes in those starts. That experience will come in handy for the second-year driver this Sunday. In Stenhouse's Nationwide Series career, he posted three Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in his six career starts at the Desert Jewel. Clearly the driver of the No. 17 Ford knows how to navigate this flat short track, and he'll show it in the Profit on CNBC 500.

Austin Dillon -
Despite this being Dillon's first career Sprint Cup start at Phoenix, we believe he'll be a worthy fantasy racing start and good finisher at the Arizona short track. The Richard Childress Racing rookie made five starts at the oval in his brief Nationwide Series career, and grabbed an impressive two Top 5s and four Top 10s in those five races. Additionally, Dillon has a pair of Top 10s and a pole position in his two Camping World Truck Series starts at the oval outside Phoenix. As you can see Dillon is anything but "green" at this race track. Coming off his first Cup pole position and Top 10 at Daytona, we believe the rookie will impress this Sunday afternoon.

A.J. Allmendinger -
The new JTG Daugherty Racing driver has a lot to look forward to at Phoenix this weekend. Allmendinger was bogged down in the carnage that was the final third of last weekend's Daytona 500. This week we expect the talented journeyman driver to keep the fenders on the No. 47 Chevrolet. PIR ranks as one of Allmendinger's top four statistical tracks in the series. In his eight-season Cup career he has two Top-10 and five Top-15 finishes at the desert oval. That works out to a very respectable 15.7 average finish. Allmendinger should challenge that mark when the green flag drops at Phoenix.

Slow Down - Drivers to possibly avoid this week

Jamie McMurray -
The Ganassi Racing veteran has good tracks like Daytona and he has his bad tracks like Phoenix. Unfortunately McMurray the barometer swings south this week as we visit Phoenix International Raceway. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has had it pretty tough at PIR over his long career. McMurray has only two Top-10 finishes in 21 starts at the Avondale oval. Recent seasons have been no better for him. McMurray has only one Top 10 in his last four trips to Phoenix. That career 21.7 average finish is a hard statistic to shake and likely a good indication of where he'll finish this Sunday afternoon.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart is a one-time Phoenix winner, and it came all the way back in his rookie season of 1999. Since then Stewart has been an up-and-down performer at the oval outside Phoenix. Case in point, the No. 14 Chevrolet team led 160 of 312 laps in November 2011 and dominated the Kobalt Tools 500. However, Smoke wasn't up to the task of bringing home the win in that one and had to settle for a third-place finish. His three starts at PIR since then have netted 22nd-, 19th- and eighth-place finishes. Then there's the leg issue with Stewart. We really didn't get a good feel for his health and strength in that still-healing leg since he departed both the Sprint Unlimited and Daytona 500 early. One has to wonder if he's up to the rigors of 312 laps at Phoenix.

Marcos Ambrose -
The Aussie has been improving on ovals for the last few seasons now, but his Phoenix outings have taken a turn for the worse of late. Ambrose finished a lowly 32nd and 18th in his two Phoenix outings in 2012. Last season the RPM driver posted 18th- and 26th-place finishes at the Desert Jewel. Ambrose has a lot to prove in this visit to Phoenix. With only one Top-10 finish in 11 career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, it's clear we need to sit out the Richard Petty Motorsports driver this weekend and deploy him elsewhere in the schedule.

Danica Patrick -
We're afraid that the hangover of disappointment from Daytona could hang over the heads of this driver and team again this week at Phoenix. Patrick has three career starts at this oval with one Top-20 and two finishes outside the Top-30. One of those starts resulted in a DNF in this race one year ago. The average line resides around 29.7 for an average finish. Patrick is not likely excited about this trip to Phoenix International Raceway. The biggest part of her problem has been qualifying here. With starts of 37th-, 40th- and 32nd-place, Patrick is in the hole before the green flag even waves. The chances of a reversal this weekend are not very likely.