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Race for Heroes 500 Preview: Duel in the Desert

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

As the season draws to a close, the Chase for the Sprint Cup brings us to Phoenix and Phoenix International Raceway for the prelude to the championship finale. This race marks the cut from the eight-driver Eliminator round of the Chase to the four-driver Championship round at Homestead. We make a big departure from the 1.5-mile intermediate ovals and come to one of the few flat tracks on the circuit. PIR 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. It is truly a unique facility among those on the Sprint Cup circuit, and very fitting that it plays a key role in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Phoenix is not a rhythm track like some of the cookie cutter ovals that we have raced recently. Its unusual configuration will test the concentration and nerve of the drivers as they complete 312 circuits on this flat oval. Since Phoenix International Raceway is so unique, we have a driver set for this race that is unique as well. Certain drivers thrive on the flat oval in the Arizona desert, while some others would rather be just about anywhere else this weekend but Phoenix. However, one theme will be quite clear. Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick will be driving over each other to get ahead in the championship chase. As a quick glance at the standings shows us, the Sprint Cup championship is still up for grabs coming into the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500. With the fist fights, scuffles and other mayhem of Texas still fresh in our memory, all eyes will be on the Arizona desert this weekend. As pressure builds, and frustration boils over, we're sure to see some fireworks on and potentially off the race track.

For the first time since March, we're racing at PIR. It was almost eight months ago that the Sprint Cup Series ran in the mid-afternoon in the Arizona desert. Even though it has been a long time since drivers made laps at Phoenix, we can still look at the results from the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 for indicators for this weekend. Not only that race, but we'll factor in the last nine seasons at PIR for some ideas of who will run up front this weekend. Current hot streaks will play a part as well in evaluating this weekend's race, but historical stats at this facility are a very valuable tool. Here are the loop stats for the last 19 races at Phoenix International Raceway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson6.15336098485,319116.5
Kevin Harvick10.54463867144,646103.9
Jeff Gordon12.64502372774,87499.9
Carl Edwards10.84353673874,12499.9
Tony Stewart13.24652204004,35698.3
Kyle Busch13.35622535094,80297.7
Denny Hamlin11.34062374174,13497.1
Kurt Busch14.74112905214,17496.7
Greg Biffle14.04082883893,39591.0
Brad Keselowski15.7259153631,89088.9
Ryan Newman17.553983994,03187.7
Matt Kenseth17.14491731533,61686.3
Dale Earnhardt Jr.17.03022021992,87686.0
Jeff Burton13.24728273,38784.1
Joey Logano15.9229711042,04183.7
Martin Truex Jr.18.03531541013,06982.9
Clint Bowyer16.934791222,98781.3
A.J. Allmendinger16.722041171,73480.4
Kasey Kahne18.5349160552,87879.9
Marcos Ambrose17.92193801,40675.3

If anyone hopes to pull a surprise upset in the quest for the championship, Phoenix will play a big part. Chevrolet drivers have taken three of the last four victories at the Desert Jewel and have broken Ford and Toyota's dominance over the unique short track. So you could say that this weekend sets up pretty well for Kevin Harvick in his quest to remain in the hunt for this season's championship. The Stewart Haas Racing star has won the last two Phoenix events, and five total at this facility. Before we hand the trophy to Harvick, let's not rule out Jeff Gordon just yet though. He has two career victories at this facility, and with possible playoff elimination in the mix, the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet will be racing hard to get that automatic championship round pass. So there's absolutely no doubt that the Hendrick Motorsports star has the experience to pull a big victory in Sunday's Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500. These drivers will be joined by short track specialists Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski in racing for the checkers this weekend. All three are still alive in the Chase and looking to advance to Homestead with a Phoenix victory or enough points to crack the Top-4 in the standings. One thing is for certain, when the green flag drops at Phoenix International Raceway this Sunday afternoon the fireworks will fly as these drivers compete for the big stakes at the desert oval. We'll examine those championship contending teams who have a lot to race for this weekend at the Phoenix short track and those who could sneak up and surprise the playoff teams.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick has a lot on the line this weekend at PIR. He's 18 points back of Chase leader Joey Logano and his championship hopes are hanging by a thread. Harvick has won three of the last four Phoenix races and he's a great short track driver based on his career Sprint Cup Series numbers. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has a strong recent resume at this Arizona short track. He has 294 combined laps led in just the last two races at this flat oval and that adds to a career total of 714 laps led. Harvick won this March's the Profit on CNBC 500 in dominant style. You can bet the No. 4 team collected some great data that day and they'll deploy an identical setup for Sunday's race at the Phoenix oval.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon has had his share of success in the form two wins and 21 Top 10s in 31 career starts at PIR. The No. 24 team has given the veteran driver some pretty decent cars at Phoenix the last couple seasons, and that includes his Top-5 finish there in the spring of this year. Gordon's 130 laps led and runner-up finish at the Martinsville short track two weeks ago is about the best indicator of his potential this Sunday at PIR. That's reason to be encouraged heading into the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500. Four of his last seven starts at the Arizona oval have netted Top-10 finishes, including a victory in 2011. With Gordon sitting a precarious fourth in the Chase standings entering the weekend, the motivation to win will be bigger than ever.

Jimmie Johnson -
Thanks to his dominant victory at Texas, Johnson heads to Phoenix this weekend with new energy and a morale boost. Despite having no shot at this season's championship, the desire to win will be a powerful driver. The motivation to dominate at a track where the No. 48 team has had lots of success will be very high. Johnson is a four-time winner at PIR, and he has a staggering 14 Top-5 finishes in 22 career starts (64-percent). The Hendrick Motorsports star is putting together momentum that should carry into the 2015 season, so there's no reason to sell this team short in the Quicken Loans Race for the Heroes 500.

Brad Keselowski -
While the No. 2 Ford team and Keselowski are battling just about everyone in the garage area right now, that in no way makes him a no-go driver for Phoenix weekend. Keselowski has Top-5 finishes in three of his last five trips to PIR. That includes a pole position and third-place finish earlier this season. He won at Talladega with his back to the wall facing Chase elimination, so the driver of the No. 2 Ford could do it again. The skill and determination of this driver and team are not in question since his late season hot streak started at Bristol several weeks ago. Keselowski has the talent and motivation to put on a great performance at Phoenix International Raceway this weekend, and challenge for his first career victory at this small oval.

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

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star heads to Phoenix as a driver on his way back to the top. After struggles earlier in the year, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has been gradually upping his performance the last couple months. This week he visits one of his better ovals in Phoenix International Raceway. Hamlin has great stats at this oval that are worth considering, especially in light of his Chase chances. He has one pole position, one victory and nine Top-10 finishes in his Phoenix resume. That works out to a respectable 50-percent Top-10 rate. With an impressive average finish of 11.3 at this D-shaped oval, we have to give the driver of the No. 11 Toyota due consideration for the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
After winning at Martinsville and cracking the Top 10 at Texas, we have to give a strong recommendation to Earnhardt and the No. 88 team at Phoenix. The NASCAR icon is a two-time winner with 11 Top-10 finishes at the Arizona short track. He qualified fifth on the grid here in March and finished an impressive second-place in the Profit on CNBC 500. It was Earnhardt's third straight Top 5 at the facility and best Phoenix finish since 2004. Considering that the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet won in our most recent short track outing (Martinsville) you have to like him this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.

Carl Edwards -
The Roush Fenway Racing star is looking to stay alive in the championship chase this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. Edwards has been a top performer at PIR throughout his ten-season Sprint Cup Series career. He has three pole positions, two victories and 12 Top-10 finishes in his 20 starts at the Desert Jewel. That works out to a strong 60-percent Top 10 rate at the facility. Edwards led 1 lap and finished eighth the spring race at Phoenix when he took the checkered flag in the Profit on CNBC 500. He won't likely win this Sunday afternoon, but he shouldn't be far off the leader's rear bumper cover.

Kyle Busch -
Busch's resume at PIR is a mixed bag, but it's been turning much more positive in recent seasons. He has two pole positions, one win and 12 Top 10s in 19 races at the desert oval. His most recent outings have yielded seventh- and ninth-place finishes the last two events. That illustrates his inconsistency at Phoenix. However, over the last three-race span he didn't lead any laps at the flat oval. The Joe Gibbs Racing star will try to work on that aspect this weekend. Busch's upside is pretty tremendous and balanced with a career 63-percent Top-10 rate. The No. 18 team has something to prove this Sunday afternoon, so Busch should have some major potential in the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500.

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

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver is putting the finishing touches on a career season. Logano has a career-best five victories, 16 Top-5 and 21 Top-10 finishes in 2014, and he's poised to challenge for the championship for the first time ever. As a function of his championship aspirations, Logano should be honed razor sharp for this event. He has a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last two trips to Avondale, Arizona. Over that two-race span he's led a whopping 104 laps. So not only has Logano been finishing inside the Top 10 but he's been leading laps and setting the pace. This driver and team have the major spoiler label written all over them for this very important race.

Kurt Busch -
No matter what happens from this point on, Busch has had an incredible season. He has struggled at times but fought through to put the new No. 41 team on the Sprint Cup Series map. With one victory and 10 Top-10 finishes to this point, Busch has something to build on for next season. PIR should present him with another opportunity to post a Top 10 before the season ends. Busch has solid career numbers at this small oval. 23 career starts have yielded 12 Top-10 finishes, 750 laps led and one victory. So he's had his fair share of success here. In this event one year ago, Busch finished a surprising fifth with the small Furniture Row Racing team.

Jamie McMurray -
Thanks to a fifth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway, McMurray heads to Phoenix this weekend 18th in the driver standings. It's not quite the campaign he wanted in 2014, but McMurray is making the best of it down the stretch. While Phoenix hasn't held the career-long success that this veteran driver would like, outings have been steadily improving in his most recent seasons. Top-10 and Top-20 finishes have been much more frequent at PIR for the No. 1 Chevrolet team. His start here in March led to a third-place qualifying effort and 10th-place finish in the Profit on CNBC 500. McMurray has the stuff to crack the Top 15 in this event.

Tony Stewart -
Smoke has largely gone through this season as a complete afterthought. With poor finishes and legal troubles off the track consuming the bulk of his coverage, it's been easy to forget about the No. 14 team during fantasy racing lineup selection. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Stewart has shown that most of this season's troubles are now in the rearview mirror with finishes of fourth- and 11th-place the last two weeks at Martinsville and Texas. Phoenix has always been kind to the owner/driver. Stewart owns one win and 12 Top-10 finishes at the Desert Jewel over the years. He finished eighth in this event one year ago, and could challenge that mark in Sunday's 500k race.

Ryan Newman -
Newman has been steady as a rock throughout this season's Chase. For that reason alone we come to the next-to-last race of the season and he rides an impressive third in the driver standings. The Richard Childress Racing driver boasts four career poles at PIR, and he picked up his first career win at the flat oval in the spring of 2010. In the eight Phoenix starts since that victory, Newman has collected four Top-5 finishes, including one runner-up finish. Given his two-race Top-10 streak at PIR entering this event, this should be good performance for the No. 31 RCR Chevrolet team.

A.J. Allmendinger -
The veteran driver has carried JTG Daugherty Racing to new heights in 2014. The No. 47 team made their first Chase appearance this season and they're poised for a best-ever finish in the final driver standings. Coming off ninth- and 14th-place finishes at Martinsville and Texas, Allmendinger is on a roll coming to Phoenix and looking to finish the season strong. Fortunately for Allmendinger, this is one of his favorite ovals and one which he has a lot of experience. The driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet has a pair of Top 10s in his 10 career starts at the Desert Jewel. That works out to a respectable 16.7 average finish for his career. Allmendinger has Top-15 finisher written all over him this weekend.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Martin Truex Jr. -
The No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team is trying to remain relevant coming to Phoenix this weekend. The veteran driver has only five Top-10 finishes to this point in the season; a five-year low mark for him. Truex has only six Top-10 finishes in his 17 career starts at PIR. That works out to a lowly 18.0 average finish. Recent outings at the Arizona short track have been particularly tough for this veteran driver. Truex has only two Top 10s in his last nine starts at Phoenix. It's best to stay clear of any fantasy racing expectations for this driver and team this weekend.

Michael Annett -
After coming off a respectable Top-25 finish at Texas, it's tough to put the No. 7 Tommy Baldwin Racing team in the slow down list this week. However, Annett's strength on intermediate ovals this season has been offset by his weakness on the series' short tracks. The rookie has only one career start at Phoenix and it came earlier this season in the form of a disappointing 34th-place finish. Things have not really improved over the course of the season on these small ovals for this driver and team. Annett recently struggled to 37th- and 29th-place finishes at Richmond and Loudon. This team has some improvement to gain next season on the short track circuit.

Danica Patrick -
The Stewart Haas Racing driver is looking towards the season finale and it just can't seem to get here fast enough. Despite some gains during the 2014 campaign, the No. 10 Chevy team has struggled during the Chase and of late in particular. Patrick is coming off 34th- and 36th-place finishes at Martinsville and Texas, and she comes limping into Phoenix. The Desert Jewel has been a track of struggles for this popular driver. She has four career starts and only one Top-20 finish in those efforts. The other three have been finishes outside the Top 30, including a disappointing 36th-place finish earlier this season in the Profit on the CNBC 500.

Kyle Larson -
If you're one of the many fantasy racing enthusiasts that haven gotten accustomed to seeing Larson in the Top 10 most weeks, it's time to dial down your expectations this weekend. Coming off a Top-10 finish at Texas Motor Speedway, you might think us crazy, but here's the thinking. Short tracks have presented the most challenge for this talented rookie and have really been his only down spot in 2014. As proof, you can look back to the recent Martinsville race where Larson crashed and finished 30th. He finished a subpar 20th earlier this season in the Arizona desert. It's best to lower your expectations for the No. 42 team this Sunday afternoon.