RotoWire Partners

Subway Fresh Fit 500 Preview: Racing at the Desert Jewel

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.

We leave the high speeds and mayhem of Daytona for the second race of the season. This week NASCAR visits one of the more unique tracks on the circuit, Phoenix International Raceway. Phoenix 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 quite a bit different than the high banks of Daytona International Speedway, which kicked off the season. 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. The teams that can keep up with the changing race cars as the evening air cools the track will be the ones to compete for the win at the end of the night.

This will be our first "short track" race of the season. NASCAR jumbled the schedule after last season and moved the normal number two race of Fontana to later in the schedule, so we are visiting the Desert Jewel a little sooner than we're accustomed to. We have seen the Hendrick Motorsports teams dominate at the Arizona oval over the last several seasons. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin have combined to win six of the last 10 races at PIR. We expect to see these same teams running up front and vying for the win on Saturday night. Johnson has been flat out dominant at this oval in recent years. The No. 48 team has won four of the last seven events at this unique oval.

Since we are making our first stop 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 PIR are as important as anywhere the Sprint Cup Series races. The loop stats in the table below cover the last six years or 12 races at Phoenix International Raceway.

Jimmie Johnson4.33104157723,661122.6
Carl Edwards9.82762341802,777101.7
Mark Martin8.62142413622,341100.8
Jeff Gordon11.824299853,14499.8
Kurt Busch12.82252324312,62199.3
Denny Hamlin11.62501912832,50398.6
Kyle Busch13.83451371973,24696.3
Greg Biffle14.72422703492,40296.2
Tony Stewart13.52951281722,83696.2
Kevin Harvick13.32431473162,71495.2
Martin Truex Jr.15.6223114722,16389.0
Ryan Newman19.932457502,69188.0
Jeff Burton11.33054602,37186.3
Dale Earnhardt Jr.20.3178951501,96185.2
Matt Kenseth17.42481321011,98684.2
Clint Bowyer15.519146212,01083.3
Juan Pablo Montoya17.0177781041,35881.6
A.J. Allmendinger19.412812171,08878.2
Joey Logano13.85421051078.1
Marcos Ambrose15.29813065476.4

Chevrolet teams had captured the last 10 straight races at Phoenix until Carl Edwards strolled into victory lane there last fall. Despite the No. 99 team's shocking victory, the odds are good that this trend of Chevrolet dominance will continue after this Saturday night. The No. 48 team of Johnson has been prolific at this flat oval, and there's no better driver to have in your fantasy racing lineups this week. Edwards and his No. 99 Ford team are probably the biggest threat to Chevrolet and Johnson's monopoly on this race track. The Roush Fenway Racing star finished the 2010 season on a two-race win streak and will surely carry that momentum back to this oval after the short off-season. These two players will be joined by the Toyota camp and driver Denny Hamlin. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota is as close to a short-track specialist as there is in the Sprint Cup Series. His PIR numbers would seem to back this up. We'll highlight those teams, and some others who will be vying for supremacy at Phoenix International Raceway on Saturday night.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jeff Gordon –
The Hendrick Motorsports star has amassed one win, three poles and a 71 percent Top 10 rate at the flat Arizona oval. Gordon has led 250 career laps at PIR and we're used to seeing him race up front at this facility. The No. 24 team finished runner-up in this event one year ago, so the success has been recent. Now that Gordon is paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson, the man that led Mark Martin to victory lane at Phoenix in 2009, we expect a run for the trophy this weekend.

Denny Hamlin –
Hamlin has been arguably the best short track driver in the series the last few seasons. While the driver of the No. 11 Toyota has never won at Phoenix, he has been a regular face in the Top 5. Hamlin cracks the Top 5 in better than 45 percent of his starts at PIR. The Joe Gibbs Racing star led 190 laps last November at the Desert Jewel before finishing a disappointing 12th. Don't let Hamlin's lack of victories at this facility mislead you; he can be quite dangerous at these style tracks.

Carl Edwards –
The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Phoenix International Raceway, the evening ended with Edwards doing a back flip off the top of his car. We could easily see a repeat of that scenario this weekend. The Roush Fenway Racing star ended 2010 with two-straight victories and we expect him to carry that momentum well into this season. Edwards sports a 69 percent Top 10 rate at PIR with only one career DNF, so he makes a very safe fantasy racing play as well.

Jimmie Johnson –
The defending Sprint Cup Series champion is primed to defend his current heavy weight status at Phoenix. Is there any stopping this team? Johnson has won four of the last seven races at the Desert Jewel, and in dominant fashion. He's led well over 700 laps in those last seven starts. The No. 48 Chevrolet team sports a dazzling nine-race Top 5 streak at Phoenix entering this weekend's event. Johnson will be tough to beat in the Subway Fresh Fit 500.

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

Kurt Busch –
Hendrick Chevrolets have had a death-grip on Phoenix International Raceway the last several years. One of the biggest threats to this monopoly this weekend is likely Busch and his No. 22 Dodge. The Penske Racing star already has two victories this season (Budweiser Shootout and Gatorade Duel), and he's poised to breakout for another one soon. His last five trips to the Arizona desert have netted over 200 laps led and four Top-10 finishes. Busch and crew chief Steve Addington should continue to build on this stellar record this weekend.

Mark Martin –
Martin and the No. 5 team have been a small part of the Hendrick Motorsports dominance at PIR in recent seasons. The veteran driver led 157 laps and won from the pole in this event in 2009. Martin has posted four consecutive Top 10's at Phoenix International Raceway since joining Hendrick Motorsports, so the record is flawless. We're waiting for the No. 5 team to break into the win column this season and get the ball rolling. At the very least, Martin should continue to add to his amazing loop stats and finishing stats at the Desert Jewel.

Kyle Busch –
Busch is a one time winner at PIR, but he's trying to erase the memory of his sub-par outings at this track over the last couple years. Still, the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota boasts a solid 58 percent Top 10 rate at Phoenix. Busch led a career-best 113 laps in this event one year ago, so the team has good data for this weekend's race. We expect to see Busch racing with the leaders on Saturday night.

Ryan Newman –
The sneaky-good fantasy racing play for the Subway Fresh Fit 500 is Newman. What the masses may have forgotten is that the Stewart-Haas Racing veteran wheeled his Chevrolet to victory lane in this event one year ago. What they may not have forgotten was that Newman followed that up with a brilliant runner-up finish at PIR last November. That performance should still be fresh on everyone's mind. Don't get caught up in Newman's career numbers at PIR, this is a pick based solely on recent, impressive success.

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

Greg Biffle –
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has had more success at the Arizona oval in recent years as opposed to earlier in his career. Biffle has cracked the Top 5 in two of his last four visits to Phoenix with no finish worse than 22nd during that span. He's also cracked the Top 10 in four of his last seven starts. After the disappointment of Daytona, the No. 16 team will be looking to get their season on-track at PIR this weekend.

Kevin Harvick –
The two-time Phoenix winner is still searching for the magic to get him back to victory lane at PIR. He swept the two races at this facility in 2006, and he's been desperately trying to roll back into victory lane at this small oval ever since. Harvick has a career 44 percent Top 10 rate at PIR and he collected respectable 13th- and 6th-place finishes at this facility last season. Things have changed in 2010. Since the No. 29 Chevrolet blew an engine at Daytona this past weekend, the veteran driver will look to rebound in the Subway Fresh Fit 500.

Martin Truex Jr. –
The Michael Waltrip Racing No. 56 team is looking to improve on their sup-bar debut season of 2010. Truex should get them off and running early in 2011, as he has good stats at this flat oval. He has four Top-10 finishes in his last seven starts at Phoenix International Raceway. Last season Truex posted respectable 15th- and 17th-place finishes at PIR. We expect him to improve on that in this weekend's event.

Joey Logano –
Logano will get a good opportunity to make up for his disappointing Daytona performance this weekend at PIR. The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster carried a lot of momentum into this season from 2010 and he should continue to stack up the good finishes. Logano's two starts at the Desert Jewel last season netted 10th- and 3rd-place finishes. The Top 5 effort for the No. 20 team came in the next-to-last start last year, so that awesome data will be fresh in crew chief Greg Zipadelli's notebook.

Juan Pablo Montoya –
The flat tracks were the facilities that Montoya most easily adapted to when he made the jump from open-wheel racing to NASCAR. After a few seasons racing in stock cars it's no surprise to see Montoya still performing well on these tracks. His start in this event one year ago yielded 104 laps led and a Top-5 finish. After starting the season with a Top 10 at Talladega, Montoya comes to the Arizona desert this week with some momentum and confidence.

Marcos Ambrose –
The Aussie has become a steady performer on NASCAR's short tracks since making the jump from V8 supercars a few years ago. His five career starts at Phoenix International Raceway have yielded four Top-20's and an average finish of 15.2. Ambrose will be making his first start at PIR with his new Richard Petty Motorsports No. 9 team. We expect the consistency and reliability to continue with this better-equipped race team.

David Reutimann –
The other Michael Waltrip Racing driver should be poised for a good run at Phoenix as well. We always think of Reutimann when it comes to the circuit's short tracks and PIR is no exception. He collected a pair of Top 10's at this small oval in 2009 and he's looking to improve on the 20th- and 26th-place finishes he posted here last season. Reutimann will likely rebound to his 2009 form at Phoenix this Saturday night.

Trevor Bayne –
This is sort of the "bonus" sleeper pick this week. As of the time of this writing, the Daytona 500 winner and the No. 21 team were not planning to compete at Phoenix this week. But that could easily change in light of his incredible win at Daytona last Sunday. Sponsorship offers are likely pouring in as we write this article. If the Wood Brothers Racing team load the hauler on Tuesday and head west, you need to take a long look at this talented youngster in your weekly lineup leagues. Bayne has three career Nationwide Series starts at this oval with a pair of Top-15 finishes to his credit, so he's not unfamiliar with this one-mile oval at all.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
Earnhardt is a real wild card for this event. While he has had some great success at this oval over the years, his week-to-week inconsistency has us pessimistic about his chances at PIR. The two-time winner at Phoenix failed to crack the Top 10 in his last four starts at the flat oval. Earnhardt has yet to establish which direction he is headed (outside of super speedways) this season, so it's best to take a “wait and see” approach with the No. 88 team for now.

Kasey Kahne –
Kahne joins his Red Bull Racing teammate Brian Vickers in the flops list this week. The star driver of the No. 4 Toyota has struggled mightily at the flat one-mile oval over the years. Kahne has only managed three Top-10 finishes in 13 career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, and his two trips to the oval last season were a complete disaster with 30th- and 39th-place finishes. He hasn't visited the Top 10 at PIR since 2006, so play the trend for the Subway Fresh Fit 500.

Tony Stewart –
Stewart has decent career numbers at the Arizona oval, but his recent body of work has been very unimpressive. Smoke is a one-time Phoenix winner and he sports a 50 percent Top 10 rate at the track, but his one Top 10 in his last six visits to PIR hangs like a cloud over his chances for this event. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet has obvious talent and with it upside for this race, but Stewart's current Phoenix slump makes for some calculated risk.

Brian Vickers –
Short track racing is the weakness of this driver and team. We would have Vickers in our fantasy racing lineups any time the series visits and intermediate oval or super speedway, but not at the short/flat tracks. He has cracked the Top 20 only once in the last six trips to PIR, with two DNF's during that span. There's no reason to expect Vickers to perform a turnaround in this Saturday night's event.