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Kobalt Tools 500 Preview: Setup to the Championship

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 next-to-last race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup brings us to Phoenix, Arizona and 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 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. Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski 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 500 for indicators for this weekend. Not only that race, but we'll factor in the last six 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 13 races at Phoenix International Raceway.

Jimmie Johnson4.23394347913,918121.8
Jeff Gordon10.92681692233,421103.3
Kurt Busch12.42442424622,933100.3
Carl Edwards11.22912522012,82799.6
Mark Martin9.02392433622,55399.4
Denny Hamlin11.62861922922,81398.3
Tony Stewart13.03361682313,12298.1
Kyle Busch12.93871622203,51898.1
Kevin Harvick12.52811543172,98195.9
Greg Biffle15.12702723492,57194.8
Ryan Newman18.835964572,98689.7
Martin Truex Jr.15.5255115722,39689.2
Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.52021111502,08384.8
Matt Kenseth17.02781371032,25984.6
Jeff Burton12.43094602,39583.9
Clint Bowyer16.420751212,05581.9
A.J. Allmendinger17.715815171,33780.7
Juan Pablo Montoya17.2181891041,36579.6
Marcos Ambrose15.312213083776.5
Jamie McMurray20.216273281,26674.8

If anyone hopes to pull a surprise upset of Carl Edwards in the quest for the championship, Phoenix will play a big part. Chevrolet drivers have won a staggering 13 of the last 15 races at Phoenix International Raceway, including this season's Subway Fresh Fit 500 which was won by Jeff Gordon. So you could say that this weekend sets up pretty well for Stewart in his quest to outduel Edwards in the championship chase. Before we hand the trophy to either Edwards or Stewart, let's not rule out 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 14 Top-5 finishes. Harvick will be joined by short track specialist Kyle Busch in racing for the checkers this weekend. While Toyota has yet to crack Chevrolet's dominance at this oval, the Joe Gibbs Racing star is a one-time winner at Phoenix. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota led 23 laps and finished runner-up here in the spring, so Busch is very relevant in the contender discussion for this event. Assuming NASCAR doesn't take further action against him after the weekend suspension this past week at Texas Motor Speedway. 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

Carl Edwards -
Thanks to a runner-up finish to Tony Stewart at Texas Motor Speedway, Edwards heads to Phoenix this weekend with a 3-point lead in the championship chase. He will need to defend his turf at Phoenix on Sunday or face the possibility of seeing his first potential championship fall into jeopardy at Homestead-Miami. Edwards is a one-time winner at PIR, and the victory came in this event one year ago. When the pressure is on the team tends to respond. We'll soon see if Edwards is up to the task of seizing his first championship.

Tony Stewart -
The surging Stewart comes to the desert jewel this weekend seeking yet another Chase victory to keep his team steam rolling along and pointed towards a third Sprint Cup Series championship. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is a one-time winner at PIR, but it came all the way back in 1999. That might as well be ancient history as far as this analysis is concerned. However, Stewart carries a tremendous amount of momentum to the Arizona oval this Sunday. His last appearance at Phoenix saw him lead 59 laps and finish seventh in the Subway Fresh Fit 500.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick has been a very consistent performer since the Chase for the Cup began. He has five Top-10 finishes in his eight playoff races leading up to this weekend. 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 may be a long shot for this season's championship, but that should in now way slow down the No. 29 team this weekend. Harvick's last two stops at the Arizona flat track have resulted in fourth- and sixth-place finishes.

Kyle Busch -
Busch's resume at PIR is a mixed bag. He's had one pole, one win and eight Top 10's in 13 races. His most recent outings have yielded a pair of Top 10's in his last three 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 Jeff Gordon most of the night, led 23 laps and finished runner-up. The No. 18 team has what it takes to challenge for the checkers this weekend.

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

Jimmie Johnson -
Thanks to subpar racing at Texas Motor Speedway, Johnson heads to Phoenix this weekend with a 55-point deficit in the championship chase behind leader Carl Edwards. A sixth straight championship is well out of reach, but it should be motivation to dominate at a track where the No. 48 team has had lots of success. Johnson is a four-time winner at PIR, and he has a staggering 11 Top-5 finishes in 16 career starts (69 percent). The Hendrick Motorsports star is safe play for the Kobalt Tools 500.

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 12 career starts at PIR. Hamlin led 190 laps and dominated most of last year's Kobalt Tools 500 before finishing 12th at the end of the day. With a respectable average finish of 11.6 at this D-shaped oval, how can we not endorse the No. 11 Toyota team this weekend?

Ryan Newman -
While Newman has been mired in a slump during most of the Chase, 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 in the spring of last year. In the two Phoenix starts since that victory, Newman has collected second- and fifth-place finishes at Phoenix International Raceway. This should be an up-tick weekend for the No. 39 Chevrolet team.

Greg Biffle -
The surging Biffle comes to Phoenix this weekend hoping to continue building on the momentum that he has gained in recent weeks. The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has won two poles and collected three Top 10's during the Chase and Biffle is looking for more in this Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500. The driver of the No. 16 Ford finished fourth in this event one year ago, and he recently posted a Top 5 at the similar flat oval in Loudon, New Hampshire. Biffle has had a lot of positives things happen in the last few weeks, so he makes a solid fantasy racing play at PIR on Sunday afternoon.

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

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon has had his share of success in the form two wins and 18 Top 10's in 25 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 victory there in the spring of this year. Gordon is shaking off a slump during the Chase, but indicators have been looking up the last couple races. That's reason to be encouraged heading into the Kobalt Tools 500. Three of his last four starts at the Arizona oval have netted Top-10 finishes.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne is ending his stint at Red Bull Racing with a bang. The star driver of the No. 4 Toyota has been one of the hottest drivers of the Chase with four Top 5's in the eight races. He's accumulated the third-most points of the Chase, trailing only Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart. Kahne doesn't have stellar career numbers at PIR, but his sixth-place finish in February's Subway Fresh Fit 500 shows a great deal of promise for this weekend. Considering that effort and the No. 4 team's current hot streak, how can we not be very optimistic about his chances this weekend at the Phoenix oval?

Martin Truex Jr. -
The No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing team is another streaking team coming to Phoenix International Raceway this Sunday afternoon. Truex is riding a three-race Top 10 streak entering this event, including this past weekend's eighth-place finish at Fort Worth. The veteran driver has posted solid and dependable results in all of his starts at PIR. Truex has four Top-10 finishes in his last eight races at the facility and he has only one finish outside the Top 20 during this span. With the momentum that the team is riding to PIR this week, it's difficult seeing Truex finishing outside the Top 15 in this event.

Jeff Burton -
The history of Burton at Phoenix is long and impressive. He owns two victories and 12 Top-10 finishes in 24 career starts at the Arizona oval. This is one of the facilities that Burton truly loves to visit. His sudden relevance in the Chase brings the No. 31 team onto our fantasy radar screen this weekend at PIR. Two of Burton's last three starts have netted Top-10 finishes, and his leading late at Texas this past weekend before running out of gas again shows that the RCR camp is providing him with fast cars. The veteran driver should easily crack the Top 15 in the Kobalt Tools 500.

Brad Keselowski -
While the No. 2 Dodge team's championship hopes have faded, that in no way makes Keselowski a no-go driver for Phoenix weekend. Keselowski has four career starts at the Arizona flat track, with a career-best finish of 15th in February's event. He recently qualified third and cracked the Top 20 at the flat oval in Martinsville. The skill and determination of this driver and team are not in question. Keselowski has the talent and motivation to put on a great performance at Phoenix International Raceway this weekend.

Marcos Ambrose -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is putting the finishing touches on a great season. Ambrose picked up his first career victory this season and he's on track to post a career best in Top 10's in 2011. The driver of the No. 9 Ford carries this excellence to PIR on Sunday afternoon. Ambrose has six career starts at this oval, and he's finished a career-best 11th on two occasions. His total average finish in those starts is a respectable 15.3, so it's clear that Ambrose knows how to navigate this oval. He should be able to post a finish similar to the 16th-place effort he recorded earlier this season at PIR.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Kurt Busch -
The No. 22 Penske Racing team has completely fallen apart during this year's Chase. After failing to crack the Top 10 in his last five races, Busch has fallen to ninth-place in the Chase standings coming to PIR this week. Despite being a one-time Phoenix 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.

Jamie McMurray -
We can't emphasize enough the depths that the No. 1 team has fallen to in 2011. The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver has had a disastrous campaign on the heels of his career-defining 2010 season. McMurray has had a poor campaign during the Chase as well. He has no Top-10 finishes in the last eight races and two DNF's. The season can't end soon enough for McMurray. However, it looks like he'll have to slog through this weekend's event at PIR. McMurray has only two Top-10 finishes in 16 career starts at this Arizona oval.

David Ragan -
We normally like to deploy Ragan 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 No. 6 Ford team this weekend at Phoenix. Despite Ragan'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 the Roush Fenway Racing driver during his Sprint Cup Series career. Nine trips to the Arizona desert have only yielded two Top-20 finishes.

Joey Logano -
Logano limps into Phoenix with no Top-10 finishes during the Chase and a lowly 22.4 average finish. The Joe Gibbs Racing prodigy has not looked the part of the highly talented driver that we know he is. We're convinced the struggles will continue for the No. 20 Toyota team this weekend at PIR. While it's been a good oval for Logano in his brief Sprint Cup Series career, the indicators point to a rough ride this Sunday afternoon. He suffered an engine failure and 33rd-place finish there earlier this season.