CAN-AM 500 Preview: Prelude to the Championship

CAN-AM 500 Preview: Prelude to the Championship

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

As the season draws to a close, the Chase for the Sprint Cup brings us to Arizona and Phoenix International Raceway for the prelude to the championship finale. This race marks the cut from the Round of 8 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 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. Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick will be driving over each other to get ahead in the championship chase. As a

As the season draws to a close, the Chase for the Sprint Cup brings us to Arizona and Phoenix International Raceway for the prelude to the championship finale. This race marks the cut from the Round of 8 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 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. Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth 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 CAN-AM 500. With the rain, wrecks 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 Good Sam 500 for indicators for this weekend. Not only that race, but we'll factor in the last 11 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 23 races at Phoenix International Raceway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson7.96106488926,087112.0
Kevin Harvick8.95057571,4845,790111.2
Chase Elliott8.028130307101.0
Carl Edwards10.75104304525,142100.5
Kurt Busch13.25243525215,27598.7
Kyle Busch13.46163045855,54198.3
Denny Hamlin11.04692564414,73695.2
Tony Stewart15.44762204004,43092.7
Brad Keselowski14.63502291192,87792.0
Joey Logano14.03041261563,08490.2
Matt Kenseth15.95101801534,50288.1
Greg Biffle15.14382883893,54386.8
Kyle Larson15.21012091086.5
Ryan Newman17.260396994,60386.4
Martin Truex Jr.16.84371661014,13085.3
Ryan Blaney10.0140020082.5
Kasey Kahne18.4418174553,57679.9
Clint Bowyer19.236993223,11477.0
A.J. Allmendinger17.224342171,87377.0
Jamie McMurray19.0317111312,61976.7

If anyone hopes to pull a surprise upset in the quest for the championship, Phoenix will play a big part. One Chevrolet driver has won six of the last eight races at the desert short track, and that would be the driver of the Stewart Haas Racing No. 4. So you could say that this weekend sets up pretty well for Kevin Harvick in his quest to win a second championship. The Stewart Haas Racing star has won or finished runner-up in the last six Phoenix events.

Before we hand the trophy to Harvick, let's not rule out Joey Logano just yet. His back is to the wall and potentially facing Chase elimination at PIR unless he can pull the big upset victory. That will be a powerful motivator for the Penske Racing No. 22 team. While Logano has never won at Phoenix, he's been gaining some ground on Harvick's stranglehold. His Top 10s in five of the last six events at the Phoenix oval are indicative of how close he is to winning at this flat track. These drivers will be joined by short track specialists Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski in racing for the checkers this weekend. Three of the four 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 sits sixth overall in the standings at 18 points back of leader Jimmie Johnson and his championship hopes are less than assured. A victory here would lock him into Homestead and a one-race shot at repeating has champion. Harvick has been the dominant force at this oval since the 2012 season and has the six victories to prove it. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has a strong career resume at this Arizona short track. He has 282 combined laps led in just the last two races at this flat oval and that adds to a career total of 1,484 laps led. Harvick won this March's Good Sam 500 in dominant style. The veteran driver is "money" in these elimination style races, so Harvick is the man to beat this Sunday afternoon.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver has had a great season, but he faces elimination this Sunday afternoon unless he can make a trip to victory lane or squeak into Homestead on points. Logano has two victories, 14 Top-5 and 24 Top-10 finishes in 2016, and he's poised to challenge for the championship for the third season in a row. As a function of his championship aspirations, Logano should be honed razor sharp for this event. He has five Top-10 finishes in his last six starts at PIR coming to Avondale this weekend. Over that six-race span he's led a healthy 156 laps, in an attempt to steal the spotlight from Harvick. That's second only to Harvick during the same time period. So not only has Logano been finishing inside the Top 10 but he's been leading laps and setting the pace at times. This driver and team have their backs to the wall and they should race like it at the Desert Jewel.

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star heads to Phoenix as a driver desperately trying to advance in the Chase for the Cup. Hamlin enters PIR fifth in the championship standings and firmly on the bubble for elimination. This week he visits one of his better ovals in Phoenix International Raceway. Hamlin has great stats at this oval that are worth considering. He has two pole positions, one victory and 12 Top-10 finishes in his Phoenix resume. That works out to a respectable 55-percent Top-10 rate. With an impressive average finish of 11.0 at this D-shaped oval, it's clear that the JGR driver likes racing at this tough oval. Hamlin's been strong on the short tracks of late with the victory at Richmond a few weeks ago and his near-brush with victory at Martinsville two weeks ago.

Kyle Busch -
Busch's career resume at PIR is a mixed bag, but it's been turning much more positive in recent seasons. He has three pole positions, one win and 14 Top 10s in 22 races at the desert oval. His most recent outings have yielded a pair of fourth-place finishes in the last two events at the track. That illustrates his recent excellence at Phoenix. Considering that Busch comes to PIR second in the Chase standings this weekend, the stakes for this driver in this race have never been higher. Busch's upside is pretty tremendous and balanced with a career 64-percent Top-10 rate. The No. 18 team has something to prove this Sunday afternoon, so Busch should have some major potential in the CAN-AM 500.

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

Brad Keselowski -
While the No. 2 Ford team and Keselowski are out of the Chase picture, that in no way makes them irrelevant from a fantasy racing perspective at Phoenix this weekend. Keselowski has Top-10 finishes in four of his last five trips to PIR. That span includes 59 laps led and a pair of Top-5 finishes at the desert short track. He did somewhat of a disappearing act at Texas this past week, but we expect Keselowski to rebound nicely on the tricky Arizona oval. With the Penske Racing star looking towards a tune up for the 2017 season, he has the talent and motivation to put on a great performance at Phoenix International Raceway this weekend.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team is honing their skills and looking to grab victories as the season winds down. Truex was eliminated from the Chase after Talladega, but it hasn't slowed him down one bit. The veteran driver rides a two-race Top-10 streak into the desert oval, and has over 200 laps led during this two-race span. Truex has only seven Top-10 finishes in his 21-career starts at PIR. That works out to a lowly 16.8 average finish. Recent outings at the Arizona short track have been much better for this veteran driver. Truex has one Top-10 and three Top-15 finishes in his last three trips to the Desert Jewel. His recent short track barometer shows one win, over 500 laps led and three Top 10s in the last three events on ovals of one-mile or less in size.

Chase Elliott -
The impressive rookie is looking to finish his 2016 campaign in strong fashion. Elliott's eye-raising fourth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway this past weekend is evidence of that fact. Now the Hendrick Motorsports driver will focus on his second visit to Phoenix International Raceway this Sunday afternoon. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet made his Phoenix debut in March of this year. Elliott would qualify 17th on the starting grid, but would look unfazed as he drove through the field to an impressive eighth-place finish. That has been the case as well for his last two outings on short tracks. Third- and 12th-place finishes at Dover and Martinsville during the Chase indicate Elliott's improving skills on these tough ovals. He's set to outperform in the CAN-AM 500.

Carl Edwards -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star punched his ticket into the championship round of the Chase with his surprising win at Texas this past week. The urgency to win at Phoenix will be diminished, but he's so good at this oval that he'll be among the leaders. Edwards has been a top performer at PIR throughout his 12-season Sprint Cup Series career. He has three pole positions, two victories and 13 Top-10 finishes in his 24 starts at the Desert Jewel. That works out to a strong 54-percent Top-10 rate at the facility. Edwards has a pair of Top-10 and five Top-15 finishes in his last five PIR starts, but we expect him to turn it up a notch this Sunday. He won't likely win this Phoenix race, but he shouldn't be far off the leader's rear bumper in this 500k battle.

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

Jimmie Johnson -
Thanks to his big victory at Martinsville two weeks ago, Johnson heads to Phoenix this weekend with a championship round seed locked up. He doesn't have the need to win at PIR, but he will show well at one of his favorite small ovals. The Hendrick Motorsports star has enjoyed a lot of success at Phoenix over the years. Johnson is a four-time winner at PIR, and he has a staggering 19 Top-10 finishes in 26-career starts (73-percent). The Hendrick Motorsports star is getting ready to challenge for a seventh championship in two weeks, and Phoenix International Raceway will be a good tune up for that very important race.

Matt Kenseth -
After cracking the Top 5 at Martinsville and cracking the Top 10 at Texas, we have to give a strong recommendation to Kenseth and the No. 20 team at Phoenix. The veteran driver is a one-time winner with 11 Top-10 finishes at the Arizona short track. He posted a respectable seventh-place finish at the Desert Jewel in March, and that's a good barometer for this weekend. Two of Kenseth's last three Phoenix trips have yielded Top-10 finishes. Considering all that's on the line this Sunday afternoon with Kenseth trying to advance in the Chase, we expect a top performance from the Joe Gibbs Racing star. Kenseth should challenge the Top 5 in the CAN-AM 500.

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 No. 41 team in the running for the championship with two races to go in 2016. With one victory and 20 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. 27-career starts have yielded 16 Top-10 finishes, 750 laps led and one victory. He's had his fair share of success at the Arizona flat track. In the spring race at the Phoenix short track, Busch qualified fourth and finished sixth in the Good Sam 500.

Jamie McMurray -
Thanks to a 19th-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway, McMurray heads to Phoenix this weekend 15th in the driver standings. It's not quite the campaign he wanted in 2016, 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. McMurray has two Top-10 and five Top-16 finishes in his last five trips to the Arizona desert. The No. 1 Chevrolet team has been running well on the short tracks of late, with Top-10 finishes at both Richmond and Martinsville. We expect to see McMurray challenging the leaders at Phoenix International Raceway.

Ryan Newman -
Newman has been less than consistent throughout this season's Chase. However, his short track performances have been pretty decent. In addition, he's coming off a Top-10 finish this past weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. 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 12 Phoenix starts since that victory, Newman has collected five Top-5 finishes, including one runner-up finish. Considering that the veteran driver finished 11th in this event one year ago, this should be a good performance for the No. 31 RCR Chevrolet team.

Ryan Blaney -
Coming off the 12th-place finish and good performance at Texas, Blaney is looking to finish the season strong. Phoenix offers another opportunity for the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team to challenge the Top 10. Blaney had a great outing here in March when he qualified 12th on the starting grid and raced to an impressive 10th-place finish in the Good Sam 500. It was his first-career Sprint Cup Series start at the oval, and that makes the performance even more impressive. The driver of the No. 21 Ford has 12th- and 19th-place finishes at the flat small ovals of Loudon and Martinsville during the Chase, so that's a good indicator of potential coming into this Sunday. Blaney should crack the Top 15 at PIR.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Tony Stewart -
Smoke has been largely disappointing from a fantasy racing perspective this season. Aside from the surprising win at Sonoma, he's had only eight Top 10s to this point in the season, and only one Top 10 during the Chase. Stewart has had lots of Phoenix success over the years with one win and 12 Top-10 finishes in his 27-career starts. However, recent outings have proven nothing less than difficult for the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet. Stewart finished 27th and two laps down to the leaders here in March, and he hasn't cracked the Top 10 in his last four visits to the Desert Jewel. It's best to pass up this veteran driver and team for Sunday's CAN-AM 500.

Clint Bowyer -
After a disappointing 25th-place finish at Texas, it's clear that the HScott Motorsports driver is limping into the home stretch run of the season. Bowyer has only three Top-10 finishes this season, and it ranks as his worst since joining NASCAR's top division. He has 22-career starts at Phoenix International Raceway over the last 12 seasons. The driver of the No. 15 Chevrolet has only six Top 10s in those starts for a lowly 27-percent rate. It's certainly not one of Bowyer's favorite tracks. The veteran driver has only one Top 10 in his last seven visits to the Arizona flat track. It's best to stay clear of this veteran driver until he takes the wheel of the No. 14 Chevrolet for SHR next season.

Paul Menard -
The Richard Childress Racing driver is looking towards the season finale and it just can't seem to get here fast enough. Despite some peaks during the 2016 campaign, the No. 27 Chevy team has struggled during the Chase and of late in particular. Menard is rounding off his worst campaign in the Sprint Cup Series since the 2009 season. Phoenix International Raceway has been a track of very limited success for this veteran driver over the years. With only two Top 10s in 19-career starts, he checks in at dismal 11-percent Top-10 rate at PIR. Recent finishes had trended more towards the Top 15, however, his start here in March of this year was a disaster. Menard crashed in the early going of the Good Sam 500 and finished 38th. There's too much at stake this late in the fantasy racing season to gamble a start on Menard at Phoenix.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
If you consider that Stenhouse has eclipsed his previous best Top 10 total with six so far in the 2016 season, then the campaign has been a success. However, being ranked outside the Top 20 in the driver standings still falls way short of expectations for the No. 17 team. Stenhouse is coming off a good 16th-place finish at Texas this past week, but the short tracks of the Chase have been another story all together for the young driver. Finishes of 24th and 40th at Loudon and Martinsville are a poor indicator coming into Phoenix. His resume at this oval isn't the greatest either. Stenhouse has seven starts at PIR with no Top-10 finishes and two DNF's in his last two starts. A finish outside the Top 25 seems most likely for the No. 17 Ford team.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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