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Subway Fresh Fit 500 Preview: Racing 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.

With the caution flags, carnage and mayhem of the Daytona 500 now well in our rearview mirror, we head this week to a much different venue for race No. 2 of the season. This week, NASCAR's top racing series visits one of the more unique tracks on the circuit, Phoenix International Raceway. The track at Avondale, Ariz., is an irregular "D-shaped" oval with very flat banking in the corners of 9-11 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 that should lead to a close finish and very entertaining race. We have seen the Hendrick Motorsports teams dominate at the Arizona oval the last several seasons. However, a changing of the guard may be under way. Toyota and Ford have intervened with two victories in the last three races with Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards, effectively ending Chevrolet's monopoly on this one-mile oval.

The PIR oval was freshly resurfaced and reconfigured a bit late last fall. The tweaks helped widen the racing groove on the back stretch and in general the new asphalt has gone a long way toward developing two racing grooves at the facility. As a result we saw a blazing-fast qualifying speed of more than 112 mph posted in last fall's Kobalt Tools 500 by Matt Kenseth. This is the fastest pole speed at the facility since the late 90s. We also saw a lot of parity between the manufacturers in this race, with all four leading significant laps in this 312-lap event. We expect the new surface to have seasoned some over the offseason, and the racing should be a real treat in this weekend's event.

Since we are making our first stop of the season in the Arizona desert this week, we can only really look back on past statistics for Phoenix International Raceway. Because 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 seven years, 14 races, at Phoenix International Raceway.

Jimmie Johnson4.93584357913,994118.2
Carl Edwards10.53082842283,139101.3
Tony Stewart12.33562063913,434100.9
Kurt Busch13.22712575193,211100.4
Jeff Gordon12.42771732233,49499.8
Mark Martin9.52692443622,75397.8
Denny Hamlin11.63071922922,95596.3
Kyle Busch14.64001642203,60195.5
Kevin Harvick13.02921673173,15794.8
Greg Biffle14.92912733492,62993.1
Ryan Newman17.839168573,19490.1
Martin Truex Jr.15.8272122722,59988.9
Jeff Burton11.83577002,65385.6
A.J. Allmendinger16.019041171,64585.5
Matt Kenseth18.22801561522,43584.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.82021121502,08382.9
Clint Bowyer15.922663212,10081.8
Marcos Ambrose14.31553201,12280.5
Juan Pablo Montoya17.0200901041,49679.4
Kasey Kahne20.124162142,03075.8

With Ford and Toyota's victories in two of the last three Phoenix races, it could be that the Subway Fresh Fit 500 may truly be up for grabs this weekend. Kasey Kahne's upset victory in last fall's Kobalt Tools 500 took Toyota to victory lane for the first time at PIR. The effort foiled Tony Stewart's effort to win a sixth race during last season's Chase as Smoke led 160 laps and dominated the vast majority of the event. So if Chevrolet hopes to retake the throne at Phoenix International Raceway, their hopes will largely ride with the No. 14 Chevrolet and Stewart. Let's not forget Ford. The Roush Fenway Racing camp should be well represented in this race as well. Carl Edwards won here at the end of the 2010 season and he finished runner-up at this one-mile oval last November. He will be joined by the duo of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle who've enjoyed periods of success at PIR. Let's not forget the Dodge camp of Roger Penske Racing. Former Penske driver Kurt Busch led almost 60 laps at this facility last fall, and new Penske driver A.J. Allmendinger qualified second and finished sixth in the 2011 Kobalt Tools 500. We'll highlight the teams mentioned above, and some others who will be vying for supremacy at Phoenix International Raceway on Saturday evening.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Tony Stewart -
The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion is a one-time Phoenix winner, and it came all the way back in his rookie season of 1999. Since then Stewart has been a consistent performer at the one-mile oval and has flirted with victory lane on more than one occasion. Case in point, the No. 14 Chevrolet team led 160 of 312 laps last November and dominated the Kobalt Tools 500. However, Smoke wasn't up to the task of bringing home the win and had to settle for a third-place finish. The owner/driver should be in the running again this weekend. PIR is an oval where Stewart sports a dazzling 40 percent career Top-5 rate.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon is the defending race winner of this event, and he's at two-time victor at the Phoenix oval. In last season's Subway Fresh Fit 500, the Hendrick Motorsports star came from 20th starting spot to lead 138 laps and win. That performance was his 10th career Top-5 finish at Phoenix International Raceway. Gordon is poised to have a big season in 2012, and getting off to a good start will be important to his championship chances. We believe the No. 24 Chevy team that has taken a pair of Top 5s in their last four trips to the Arizona desert will be on their "A" games this Saturday evening.

Carl Edwards -
In just the last three Phoenix races alone, Edwards has flexed the No. 99 Ford team's muscle at the one-mile oval. He has two poles, one victory, one runner-up finish and close to 150 laps led in those three races. Those stats alone could make Edwards the top contender for this weekend's Subway Fresh Fit 500. Considering that the race sponsor is also a major primary sponsor of Edwards' No. 99 team, that is a big motivational factor in going for broke to get into victory lane. If Edwards' runner-up finish here last fall is any indication, he should be in the running for the checkers when crunch time rolls around.

Kyle Busch -
Busch is a one-time winner at PIR, but he's trying to erase the memory of his poor outing here last fall. The No. 18 Toyota's engine failure cut his Kobalt Tools 500 last November short by almost half. But this has been the pattern for Busch over his career at Phoenix International Raceway. He just can't seem to put two great races together here back-to-back. That may be good news for this weekend's 500k affair. Busch has led laps in three of his last four visits to PIR, and he finished runner-up in this event one year ago. If the Joe Gibbs Racing star's luck plays out true to form, he'll be in the mix by the end of the evening at the Arizona oval.

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

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 39 percent of his starts at PIR. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led close to 300 laps for his career at Phoenix, and he's usually at worst a Top-15 finisher. The new crew chief of the No. 11 Toyota team, Darian Grubb, should go a long ways towards elevating Hamlin from Top 10 status at Phoenix to race-contender status this season.

Jimmie Johnson -
The Hendrick Motorsports star has by far the most dominant loop stats at Phoenix International Raceway. But we have to take this fact with a grain of salt. The pack has done an extraordinary job catching up to the No. 48 Chevrolet team. It wasn't until the 2010 season that Ford and Toyota drivers finally caught up to Johnson at this oval. Still, he's proven to be a Top-5 finisher most of the time when he's not hoisting the trophy over his head in victory lane. Johnson owns a staggering 82 percent Top-10 rate at PIR and he's posted finishes of third-, fifth-, third- and 14th-place in his last four trips to the Desert Jewel.

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 has collected Top 10s in two of his last three trips to this facility. In this race one year ago Harvick piloted the No. 29 Chevrolet from 17th starting spot to finish a stellar fourth in the Subway Fresh Fit 500. The Richard Childress Racing star should be able to easily recreate that excellence this weekend.

Ryan Newman -
The sneaky-good fantasy racing play for the Subway Fresh Fit 500 is Newman. What most people may not realize is that the veteran driver's career numbers are a bit shaky at the one-mile oval, but recent seasons have been nothing short of outstanding for the driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet. Newman has a victory, a runner-up finish and a pair of Top 5s in his last four straight races at Phoenix International Raceway. He has rather quietly amassed these numbers in the last two seasons. Newman could really be seen as more of a contender for the win than solid play, although a Top-10 finish is nearly a lock.

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

Matt Kenseth -
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has had more success at the Arizona oval in recent years as opposed to earlier in his career. Kenseth is a one-time winner at PIR, and he won the pole and led 49 laps here last November before a crash took him out of the race. The driver of the No. 17 Ford has two Top 10s in his last four trips to the one-mile track and a career Top 10 percentage of around 42 percent. We're willing to bet Kenseth's team uses that great setup that won them the pole at Phoenix last fall and hopefully they can realize the finish that Kenseth failed to get in the Kobalt Tools 500.

A.J. Allmendinger -
The new Penske Racing driver should enjoy having Phoenix as the second date in the season. With a fresh start at the No. 22 team, it will be good to visit a "comfortable" oval this early in the schedule. Allmendinger owns one career pole position and he picked up a pair of Top 10s at Phoenix International Raceway last season. The California native has raced in all manners of cars at the Arizona flat track, so he's more than familiar with this unusual "D-shaped" oval. Allmendinger should easily crack the Top 15 in Saturday's Subway Fresh Fit 500.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne won last fall's Kobalt Tools 500 at PIR in shocking fashion. He and crew chief Kenny Francis outsmarted the field as the race went the distance under green, and played brilliant pit strategy into the win. We don't expect a repeat of this scenario this weekend, but Kahne and Francis likely learned enough to bring their act to Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 team and have similar success in this race. Kahne also finished sixth in this event in the spring of last season, so the duo really has a handle on this small oval coming into this race. We expect to see the new Hendrick driver add to his five career Top 10s at PIR after this event.

Joey Logano -
Logano will get a good opportunity to make up for his disappointing 2011 season this weekend at PIR. The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster suffered through a miserable season last year, but he managed to post a good finish at the oval in Phoenix during the Chase. Logano piloted the No. 20 Toyota Camry to an impressive 11th-place finish in the Kobalt Tools 500. That is one of three Top-15 finishes at the facility for the young driver in his last four visits. Logano should be up to the task of equaling that performance this Saturday night.

Jeff Burton -
The 18-season veteran of the Richard Childress Racing stable has always enjoyed the small oval in the Arizona desert. Burton is a two-time winner at PIR, and he's amassed 13 Top-10 finishes (fourth most among active drivers) at this facility. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet was mired in a slump much of last season, but he showed signs of life, especially when the series visited Phoenix in the Chase. Burton looked like the Burton of old in finishing a brilliant fourth in last November's Kobalt Tools 500. We're willing to bet that performance is fresh on this team's minds heading into the Subway Fresh Fit 500.

Marcos Ambrose -
The Aussie has become a steady performer on NASCAR's short tracks since making the jump from racing Down Under a few years ago. His seven career starts at Phoenix International Raceway have yielded six Top-20's and an eye-catching average finish of 14.3. Ambrose posted an eighth-place finish in the Arizona desert last November, and that was a career-best performance for the Richard Petty Motorsports driver. We expect the consistency and reliability to continue in Saturday night's 500k event.

Aric Almirola -
The deep sleeper play this week is Almirola. It's been a long time coming for him to get back into a full-time Sprint Cup ride, but we're convinced he's going to make the most of this "second chance". The driver of the No. 43 Ford has only two career Cup starts at PIR, with 26th- and 27th-place finishes to show for. In addition to these, Almirola has five career Nationwide Series starts at the one-mile Arizona oval. Last he won the pole position and led 66 laps before another driver wrecked him out of that event. All signs point to a steady, Top-20 finish for the RPM driver at Phoenix International Raceway.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jamie McMurray -
Despite good qualifying efforts at PIR recently, McMurray has really been pressed to bring home the good finishes at this small oval. He's had Top 10 starting positions in each of his last three Phoenix starts, but only managed a subpar 20.7 average finish in those events. The Earnhardt Ganassi driver is looking to get up off the canvass after a truly disastrous 2011 season. Phoenix is not one of McMurray's better ovals, 20.9 career average finish and two Top 10s in 17 starts, so he'd probably wish race number two of the new season was just about anywhere else at this rate.

David Ragan -
The new Front Row Motorsports driver will be looking to make an impression this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. The former Roush Fenway Racing youngster lost his ride after a pretty good season with the No. 6 team in 2011. Like the aforementioned McMurray, Ragan too probably wishes race number two of the season was anywhere else but Phoenix. The driver of the No. 38 Ford has 10 career starts at the one-mile oval with only one Top-10 finish to his credit and a paltry average finish of 26.8. The cards appear to be stacked against the FRM driver this Saturday evening.

Clint Bowyer -
Among the many drivers with new teams this season, Bowyer also qualifies as a new face in a new place. It remains to be seen even after Daytona how much of a downgrade the No. 15 Toyota is over his old No. 33 RCR Chevrolet. We're still trying to get a handle on that ourselves. We should know considerably more after this race. Phoenix is one of those "middle of the road" tracks for the new Michael Waltirp Racing driver. Bowyer is neither hot nor cold at this facility, but just sort of middle of the road. He sports a mediocre 38 percent Top 10 rate at this oval and two of his last five trips to the Arizona desert have seen Bowyer fail to crack the Top 20. Just too many questions to be answered to risk a fantasy start for Bowyer this weekend.

Brad Keselowski -
In what can only be called a stellar 2011 season, short track racing appeared to be the only weakness for Keselowski. The young Penske Racing star had only one Top-10 finish in all his starts on ovals of one mile or less last season. On the bright side, that single Top 10 was his win in the summer Bristol race, but all else at this bull rings was less than stellar. Keselowski averaged a finish position of 17.0 on the short tracks last season, and that's exactly one spot from where he finished at Phoenix last fall (18th). There are better tracks for Keselowski on the circuit, so it's better to save a start for him elsewhere.