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Kobalt Tools 500 Preview: Title Still Up for Grabs

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 comes to a close, the penultimate race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup brings us to Phoenix International Raceway for the prelude to the championship finale. We take 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 it's 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 PIR 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. Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick will be driving over each other to gain ground 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 Kobalt Tools 500.

For the first time since April, we're racing at PIR. It was almost seven months ago that the Sprint Cup Series ran at night 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 Subway Fresh Fit 600 for indicators for this weekend. Not only that race, but we'll factor in the last five 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 11 races at Phoenix International Raceway.

Jimmie Johnson4.22804067723,357123.7
Mark Martin8.71872283622,144102.3
Jeff Gordon11.821696852,984101.1
Kurt Busch13.21982204112,31498.7
Carl Edwards10.5264194872,46598.6
Greg Biffle15.62142683492,14196.2
Tony Stewart13.22701171722,57196.2
Denny Hamlin11.6226116932,19995.2
Kyle Busch13.93241091912,94494.8
Kevin Harvick13.92081453162,44394.6
Martin Truex Jr.15.7200113721,92288.5
Jeff Burton10.52863702,17586.2
Dale Earnhardt Jr.20.8170941501,92586.1
Ryan Newman21.529950502,39085.9
Clint Bowyer14.917745211,92984.7
Matt Kenseth18.42121261001,72483.3
Juan Pablo Montoya17.1150761041,12681.6
Marcos Ambrose13.59413063279.9
A.J. Allmendinger19.8105101784776.9
Jamie McMurray19.713365281,11476.0

If anyone hopes to pull a surprise upset of Jimmie Johnson in the quest for the championship, Phoenix will play a big part. Chevrolet drivers have won the last 10 races at Phoenix and 12 of the last 13, including this season's Subway Fresh Fit 600 which was won by Ryan Newman. So you could say that this weekend sets up pretty well for Johnson in his quest for a fifth consecutive championship. Before we hand yet another huge trophy to Johnson, let's not rule out Kevin Harvick just yet though. He won both races at this flat track in 2006 and has shown great ability here in his Nationwide Series starts with one victory and 12 Top-5 finishes. Harvick will be joined by short track specialist Denny Hamlin in racing for the checkers this weekend. While Toyota has yet to crack Chevrolet's dominance at this oval, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has flirted with victory lane more than once at Phoenix. We'll examine those championship contending teams who have a lot to race for this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, and those who could sneak up and surprise the big teams.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jimmie Johnson
Thanks to subpar racing at Texas Motor Speedway, Johnson heads to Phoenix this weekend with a 33-point deficit in the championship chase behind Denny Hamlin. He will need to defend his turf at Phoenix on Sunday or face the possibility of seeing his fifth straight championship fall into jeopardy at Homestead-Miami. Johnson is a four-time winner at PIR, and three of those four victories have come in this "Chase" event at the Arizona flat track. When the pressure is on the defending champion responds.

Denny Hamlin
Almost improbably Hamlin has never won a Sprint Cup event at PIR. Hamlin has had race cars capable of winning almost every time the series has visited Phoenix International Raceway in the recent past. He has one pole and five Top-5 finishes in his 10 career starts at PIR. Hamlin has led close to 100 laps in those starts and knows how to run up front at this track. The No. 11 team is quite capable of pulling the upset win in the Kobalt Tools 500.

Kevin Harvick
Harvick has been a very consistent performer since the Chase for the Cup began. He has seven Top-10 finishes in his eight playoff races leading up to this weekend, and he's fresh off a brilliant Top 10 effort at Fort Worth. Harvick swept both PIR races in 2006 and he's a great short track driver based on his career Sprint Cup Series numbers. The Richard Childress Racing veteran has his eyes fixed on the prize, so he could be a dark horse contender for the win on Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Busch
Busch's resume at PIR is a mixed bag. He's had one pole, one win and seven Top 10's in 11 races. His most recent outings have yielded a pair of Top 10's in his last four visits to the Arizona desert. Busch's most recent performance at Phoenix is what draws our most scrutiny. When the Sprint Cup Series visited here in April, the Joe Gibbs Racing star dueled with Jimmie Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya most of the night, led 113 laps and finished eighth. The No. 18 team has what it takes to challenge for the checkers this weekend.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are a near lock for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Mark Martin
The Hendrick Motorsports veteran comes to the desert jewel this weekend seeking a victory to keep his current team revival going and building momentum towards another championship run in 2011. A win for the No. 5 team would mean a lot considering the season Martin has had. He is a two-time winner at Phoenix International Raceway, and sports a very impressive 67 percent Top 10 rate over his 22 years of racing at this facility.

Clint Bowyer
The surging Bowyer comes to Phoenix this weekend hoping to continue building on the successful season that the No. 33 team has had in 2010. After two wins in the Chase, Bowyer is looking for more in this Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500. While he won't likely win at this flat short track, Bowyer does have consistent stats recently at PIR. Bowyer is riding a two-race Top 10 streak at the facility into this event as well as the recent momentum of his flat track win at Loudon.

Jeff Gordon
While Gordon has had his share of success, 17 Top 10's in 23 career starts at PIR, he's only got one win to show for at the desert jewel. The No. 24 team has given the veteran driver some pretty decent cars at Phoenix the last couple seasons, but not race-winners. Gordon is riding a two-race Top 10 streak at the one-mile oval, including his brilliant runner-up finish in this April's Subway Fresh Fit 600K.

Jamie McMurray
We can't get too caught up in career numbers at Phoenix when looking at McMurray this weekend. The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver has had a career-defining season with the No. 1 team in 2010. McMurray has a career best three victories this season and an impressive nine Top-5 finishes to this point. He led 12 laps and finished third at the flat oval in Loudon, New Hampshire to start the Chase, so this team's small track/flat track program is performing well. McMurray should be a surprise performer in this event.

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

Ryan Newman
While Newman has been mired in a slump the last four races, we have to throw that out the window for this weekend's race in Phoenix. The Stewart-Haas driver boasts four career poles at PIR, and he picked up his first career win at the flat oval this spring. Newman took advantage of a late caution to claim that victory. We don't expect to see the No. 39 Chevrolet back in victory lane this weekend, but he should post another Top 10 performance.

David Reutimann
Reutimann loves the short and flat tracks, and Phoenix qualifies as both. Although his career numbers at PIR are a bit mediocre, he really has come to run much better at this oval in recent outings. Reutimann has two Top 10's in his last three trips to the one-mile oval, including a 10th-place finish in this event one year ago. The driver of the No. 00 Toyota recently cracked the Top 10 at the flat oval in Loudon, so we should have high expectations for this team in the Kobalt Tools 500.

Martin Truex Jr.
The No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing team should join his teammate Reutimann in being a good fantasy racing play for this weekend's race at Phoenix. Truex has posted solid and dependable results in all of his starts at PIR. He's been running well of late and should carry some momentum to this weekend's race. Truex has four Top-10 finishes in his last six races at the facility and he won the pole and finished fifth in this event one year ago.

Jeff Burton
The history of Burton at Phoenix is long and storied. He owns two victories and 12 Top-10 finishes in 22 career starts at the Arizona oval. This is one of the facilities that Burton truly loves to visit. He has four Top-10 finishes in his last six PIR races and should be spot-on yet again on Sunday. The No. 31 team has been struggling with luck of late, but Burton should be very happy to see this one-mile oval this weekend.

Sam Hornish Jr.
Hornish and the No. 77 Penske Racing team come to PIR this weekend in search of a good finish. He's been wildly inconsistent of late and needing to get the ship righted before the end of the season. Hornish has been good on the flat tracks this season, as his Top 10 to start the Chase at Loudon recently showed us. He has one Top 10 and three Top 20's in his last three trips to the Arizona desert, so this should be an "up" weekend for the Penske Racing driver.

Joey Logano
The next big thing at Joe Gibbs Racing will be Logano. It's hard to stand in the shadow of teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin for long, but Logano is quickly making a name for himself in the Sprint Cup garage area. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has 15 Top-10 finishes this season with five of them coming in the Chase races alone. Logano finished a career-best 10th at this oval in the spring of this year, so a good performance should be in order.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Kurt Busch
The No. 2 Penske Racing team has completely fallen apart during this year's Chase. After failing to crack the Top 10 in his last six races, Busch has fallen to the bottom of the championship Top 12. Despite being a one-time PIR winner and over 50 percent Top 10 career rate at the Arizona flat track, he limps into this weekend's event. Busch is a high-risk fantasy racing play in the Kobalt Tools 500.

Elliott Sadler The up-and-down roller coaster ride for Sadler will continue this weekend at PIR. He and the No. 19 team have been more off than on of late and Phoenix is not one of his best tracks. Sadler has failed to crack the Top 30 in four of his last five visits to the desert jewel. With only one career Top 10 in 17 starts at Phoenix International Raceway, we have to look elsewhere for out fantasy racing help this weekend.

Regan Smith
We normally like to deploy Smith in our lineups whenever we're looking for deep help in our weekly lineup leagues, and certainly on intermediate ovals. However, we have to avoid the small No. 78 team this weekend at Phoenix. Despite Smith's obvious talent and unrecognized value in most fantasy racing circles, he doesn't have the right stuff this weekend. PIR has been a real puzzle for Smith in his brief Sprint Cup Series career. Four trips to the Arizona desert have only yielded one Top-25 finish.

Kasey Kahne
The early move to Red Bull Racing's No. 83 team is good for building momentum for next season. However, Kahne will likely inherit the weaknesses of this team in the remaining races. PIR has been a weakness for the No. 83 team and their regular driver Brian Vickers. When you couple that with Kahne's recent poor outings at this one-mile oval, including his 39th-place finish here in the spring, you have a recipe for disaster in this event.