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AdvoCare 500 Preview: Prelude 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 penultimate 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 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 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 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. Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer 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 AdvoCare 500.

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 Subway Fresh Fit 500 for indicators for this weekend. Not only that race, but we'll factor in the last seven 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 15 races at Phoenix International Raceway.

Jimmie Johnson4.84215068464,267118.4
Tony Stewart12.93912124003,671100.4
Carl Edwards10.93352842283,28299.7
Jeff Gordon12.13201762243,76699.5
Kurt Busch13.32822585213,31798.9
Denny Hamlin10.93442183533,26498.8
Mark Martin9.53102633633,05798.4
Kevin Harvick12.33242194053,46097.5
Kyle Busch14.04501872723,89896.9
Greg Biffle14.13292753492,84593.3
Martin Truex Jr.15.23101341012,77389.1
Ryan Newman18.041468573,29088.6
Matt Kenseth17.93111591532,67685.5
Jeff Burton13.24087172,90785.1
A.J. Allmendinger16.321441171,71083.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.42211141502,12482.2
Juan Pablo Montoya16.5242901041,71780.1
Marcos Ambrose16.51853801,29379.6
Clint Bowyer16.922980212,10179.4
Joey Logano15.61262301,00676.8

If anyone hopes to pull a surprise upset of Jimmie Johnson in the quest for the championship, Phoenix will play a big part. Toyota and Ford drivers have won three of the last four races at Phoenix International Raceway, and have finally dethroned Chevrolet after an eight-season run of dominance for that manufacturer at this small oval. So you could say that this weekend sets up pretty well for Clint Bowyer in his quest to remain relevant and climb back into the championship picture. Before we hand the trophy to either Johnson or Bowyer, let's not rule out Brad Keselowski just yet though. He has an amazing six Top-5 finishes in his last seven Nationwide Series starts at this facility, and he finished a brilliant fifth in this season's earlier race at PIR. So there's absolutely no doubt that the Penske Racing star has the experience to pull a big upset in Sunday's AdvoCare 500. These drivers will be joined by short track specialists Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne in racing for the checkers this weekend. While Toyota and Chevrolet drivers seem to dominate the discussion, let's not forget the Ford camp this weekend. Carl Edwards won this event two years ago, so the Roush Fenway Racing contingent of Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Edwards are all capable of some big things at PIR. One thing is for certain, when the green flag drops at Phoenix on 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 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 consecutive victories at Martinsville and Texas, Johnson heads to Phoenix this weekend with a 7-point lead in the championship chase ahead of Brad Keselowski. A sixth championship is well within reach, and 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 12 Top-5 finishes in 18 career starts (67 percent). The Hendrick Motorsports star is rolling downhill towards another championship, and Phoenix could be the oval that propels him over the top.

Brad Keselowski -
While the No. 2 Dodge team's championship hopes have taken a hit, that in no way makes Keselowski a no-go driver for Phoenix weekend. Keselowski has six career starts at the Arizona flat track, with a career-best finish of fifth-place in February's event. He recently qualified 32nd and finished a brilliant sixth 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, and challenge for his first career victory at this small oval.

Kyle Busch -
Busch's resume at PIR is a mixed bag. He has one pole position, one win and nine Top 10's in 15 races at the desert oval. His most recent outings have yielded a runner-up finish, a sixth-place finish and an engine failure/DNF. That illustrates his inconsistency at Phoenix. Busch's most recent performance at Phoenix is what draws our most scrutiny. When the Sprint Cup Series visited here in March, the Joe Gibbs Racing star dueled with Hamlin, Harvick and Johnson, led 52 laps and finished sixth. The No. 18 team has been one of the hottest teams during the Chase and has what it takes to challenge for the win this Sunday afternoon.

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star heads to Phoenix as a wounded duck. After mechanical problems at Martinsville and performance issues at Texas this past weekend, Hamlin finds himself an insurmountable 73 points back in the Chase standings. Hopefully this No. 11 Toyota team has not psychologically folded heading to PIR. Hamlin has great stats at this oval that are worth considering despite his state of mind. He has one pole position, one victory and six Top-5 finishes in his 14 career starts at PIR. Hamlin led 61 laps and dominated most of this year's Subway Fresh Fit 500 and picked up his first Phoenix victory at the end of the day. With a respectable average finish of 10.9 at this D-shaped oval, we have to balance the tremendous upside against this driver's state of mind this weekend.

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

Clint Bowyer -
Thanks to a sixth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway, Bowyer heads to Phoenix this weekend with very faint championship hopes. He will need to step up his game at Phoenix on Sunday or face the possibility of seeing his first potential championship fade to obscurity at Homestead-Miami. The No. 15 Toyota team is on a roll with seven Top-10 finishes in the eight Chase races to-date. Bowyer isn't a world-beater at Phoenix International Raceway, but he isn't bad either. His five Top 10's in 14 career starts works out to a lowly 36 percent Top 10 rate. However, the Bowyer we saw in this event one year ago finished 10th and we're willing to bet he'll be much better this time around.

Tony Stewart -
After a surprising fifth-place finish at Texas, the surging Stewart comes to the desert jewel this weekend seeking yet another great finish during the Chase. 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 good amount of momentum to the Arizona oval this Sunday. He has two Top-5 finishes in his last three races entering this weekend, and is showing signs of being his usual self. Stewart's performance in this event one year ago was nothing short of awesome. He led 160 laps and finished a brilliant third.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon has had his share of success in the form two wins and 19 Top 10's in 27 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 eighth-place there in the spring of this year. Gordon is shaking off a slump during the Chase with five Top-10 finishes in the eight races to-date. That's reason to be encouraged heading into the AdvoCare 500. For of his last six starts at the Arizona oval have netted Top-10 finishes, and that's the Gordon we expect to see on Sunday afternoon at PIR.

Ryan Newman -
While Newman has been somewhat up-and-down most of the Chase, we have to throw that fact 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 2010. In the four Phoenix starts since that victory, Newman has collected three Top-5 finishes at Phoenix International Raceway. Given his 11th- and 12th-place finishes in the last two events, this should be an up-tick weekend for the No. 39 Stewart Haas Chevrolet team.

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

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick has been trying to rediscover his groove since the Chase for the Cup began. He has only one Top-10 finish in his eight playoff races leading up to this weekend, and that came this past week at Texas. 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 long eliminated from this season's championship chase, but that should in no way slow down the No. 29 team this weekend. Harvick's last four stops at the Arizona flat track have resulted in three Top-6 finishes, including a runner-up finish in this spring's Subway Fresh Fit 500.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne is winding down his first season with Hendrick Motorsports, and putting the cap on what can only be described as a career year for the veteran driver. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has been one of the most consistent drivers of the Chase with four Top 5's and five Top 10's in the eight races. He's accumulated the fourth-most points of the Chase, trailing only Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer. Kahne doesn't have stellar career numbers at PIR, but his victory and two Top 10's in the last three trips to the desert oval show great promise.

Mark Martin -
The veteran Michael Waltrip Racing driver comes to one of his favorite ovals this weekend. Martin has vast experience racing at Phoenix International Raceway, and in 31 career starts he's amassed some eye-popping numbers. He owns two pole positions, two victories, 12 Top 5's and 20 Top 10's at the desert oval. That Top 10 rate works out to an impressive 65 percent rate over 24 years of competition. Martin's last start at PIR yielded a pole position, one lap led and a respectable ninth-place finish in March's Subway Fresh Fit 500.

Joey Logano -
The history of Logano at Phoenix is short, but impressive. He owns three Top-10 finishes in seven career starts at the Arizona oval. This is one of the facilities that Logano truly loves to visit. His sudden surge during the Chase brings the No. 20 Toyota team onto our fantasy radar screen this weekend at PIR. Four of Logano's eight Chase races have netted Top-10 finishes, and his steady 11th-place finish at Fort Worth this past weekend is worth recognition. The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster registered a solid 10th-place finish at this oval in March and he shouldn't be far off that mark this Sunday afternoon.

Kurt Busch -
The new Furniture Row Racing driver is beginning to find his stride after enduring a tumultuous season at Phoenix Racing. Busch's Top-10 finish (just third of the season) this past weekend at Texas Motor Speedway is signaling to fantasy racing players that he's open for business once again. The driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet is a one-time Phoenix winner, owns 750 career laps led and sports a respectable 53 percent Top 10 rate at the Arizona flat track. Busch finished a respectable 15th for owner James Finch at PIR earlier this season and we're willing to bet he'll be at least that good if not better in Sunday's AdvoCare 500.

Aric Almirola -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is putting the finishing touches on a decent season. Almirola has Top-15 finishes in three of his last four races entering this weekend and is clearly running downhill towards the finish of this season. The driver of the No. 43 Ford is short on experience at the Phoenix oval with only three career starts in his Sprint Cup resume. However, it's Almirola's last visit that draws our most interest. He qualified 18th, stayed on the lead lap and finished 12th in this spring's Subway Fresh Fit 500. That was a career-best Phoenix performance for Almirola and something to keep in mind this weekend.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Martin Truex Jr. -
The No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing team is out of the playoff running and trying to remain relevant coming to Phoenix this weekend. Truex scored Top 10's in four of his first six Chase races, but has since cooled off. The veteran driver has finishes of 23rd- and 13th-place in his last two starts. It's clear that Truex has lost some momentum coming into this ninth race of the Chase. The veteran driver of the No. 56 Toyota has only cracked the Top 10 once in his last five trips to the Arizona oval. It's probably best to lay off Truex for the remainder of this season.

Jamie McMurray -
We can't emphasize enough the depths that the No. 1 team has fallen to in the last two years. The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver has had disastrous campaigns each of the last two seasons. McMurray has had a poor campaign during the Chase as well. He has one Top-15 finish in the last eight races and one DNF. That works out to a lowly 21.5 average finish for the Chase. 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 18 career starts at this Arizona oval.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
We normally like to deploy Earnhardt in our lineups whenever we're looking for help in our weekly lineup leagues, and certainly on intermediate ovals. However, we have to avoid the No. 88 Chevrolet team this weekend at Phoenix. Despite Earnhardt's obvious talent and value this season in most fantasy racing circles, he doesn't have the right stuff this weekend. PIR has been a real puzzle for the Hendrick Motorsports driver during the past several seasons. Earnhardt's last five trips to the Arizona desert have only yielded only one Top-10 finish. That works out a 14.8 average finish during the span and far short of what we expect from this driver on a weekly basis.

Sam Hornish Jr. -
Hornish limps into Phoenix with no Top-10 finishes during the Chase and a lowly 19.0 average finish during NASCAR's playoff. The Penske Racing veteran has not looked the part of the highly talented driver that we know he is. It could be that Hornish is mailing it in since he knows he won't be in this car next season. Considering how well Hornish started out as interim driver of the No. 22 Dodge, we expected a whole lot more in the last 10 races of the season. Phoenix International Raceway has been a tough oval for this driver over his Sprint Cup career. Hornish's two starts have netted only 18th- and 32nd-place results.