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Subway Fresh Fit 500 Preview: 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.

With the caution flags, wrecks and twisted sheet metal 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 stops at 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 nine to 11 degrees. The straights are completely flat, and very fast as they carry off into the sweeping corners. This oval is completely different than the high banks of Daytona International Speedway. 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. We have seen the Hendrick Motorsports teams dominate at the Arizona oval over the last several seasons. However, a changing of the guard may be underway. Toyota drivers have intervened with two victories in the last three races with Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin putting a stop to Chevrolet's monopoly on this one-mile oval.

The PIR oval was resurfaced just over a year ago, and it's had a great impact on the racing. The tweaks helped widen the racing groove on the back stretch and in general the new asphalt has gone a long ways towards developing two racing grooves at the facility. Speeds are up and handling is great, so the new Gen-6 race cars are sure to love this first short track in the 2013 schedule. We've seen a lot of side-by-side racing and a lot of lead changes the last two seasons at PIR, so this Subway Fresh Fit 500 should be a wild affair with the new generation stock car.

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. 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 eight years or 16 races at Phoenix International Raceway.

Jimmie Johnson6.54565178464,452115.8
Denny Hamlin10.33652353993,583100.4
Kyle Busch13.34652455094,21799.9
Kurt Busch12.93262795213,52199.3
Tony Stewart13.34232124003,90599.0
Jeff Gordon13.33621862244,06998.8
Kevin Harvick11.63432334203,71998.4
Carl Edwards10.93472842283,33998.3
Mark Martin9.53352663653,32597.8
Greg Biffle13.73422763492,87892.4
Ryan Newman17.244473623,47688.9
Matt Kenseth17.63511591532,90085.5
Martin Truex Jr.17.13101341012,77884.9
Jeff Burton13.24357673,11684.8
A.J. Allmendinger16.321441171,71083.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.52211181502,12481.0
Juan Pablo Montoya16.1250901041,78280.0
Clint Bowyer17.726486212,40080.0
Brad Keselowski19.916166171,00078.6
Marcos Ambrose16.71933801,30578.6

With Chevrolet's victory here last fall (Kevin Harvick) and Toyota's victories in the two prior Phoenix races, it could be that the Subway Fresh Fit 500 may truly be up for grabs this weekend. Harvick's victory in last fall's AdvoCare 500 took him to victory lane at PIR for the third time in his career. The upset win foiled Kyle Busch's effort to put Toyota in victory lane for the third straight time at the Phoenix oval. If Chevrolet hopes to keep control at Phoenix International Raceway, their hopes will largely ride with the No. 29 Chevrolet and Harvick. Considering the huge week he just had at Daytona, this isn't a stretch at all. In all this talk about Chevy and Toyota, let's not forget about Ford. The Roush Fenway Racing camp should be well represented in this race as well. Carl Edwards has two poles, one win and three Top 10s in his last six trips to the Arizona desert. He will be joined by the duo of Joey Logano and Greg Biffle who've enjoyed periods of success at PIR. In recent years, Ryan Newman has enjoyed a lot of success at this irregular oval. Considering he led 5 laps and finished fifth here last November, we have to keep a close eye on the driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet as well. 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

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is a one-time winner at PIR, and he was absolutely dominant at the oval last season. His 289 laps led were tops in the series at PIR in 2012. Busch will set out to collect the richly-deserved victory that he was denied in two attempts here last season. He has finished inside the Top 6 in three of his last four visits to the Arizona desert, so the time to win appears to have come for the No. 18 Toyota team. Considering that he was denied victory lane after a mechanical failure this past weekend at Daytona, we know that Busch will come very hungry into the Subway Fresh Fit 500.

Jimmie Johnson -
The Hendrick Motorsports star has by far the most dominant loop stats at Phoenix International Raceway. Coming off the big Daytona 500 win, the No. 48 team is riding a tsunami wave of momentum into the Arizona desert this weekend. For our first race on a flat, small oval in the new Gen-6 car there is no better driver and team at adapting to new conditions and new cars. Johnson is a four-time winner at PIR and that leads all active drivers in the Sprint Cup Series. He led 55 laps and finished a brilliant fourth in this event one year ago, so we expect big things for Johnson in a curtain call following his Daytona victory.

Kevin Harvick -
The Richard Childress Racing star didn't have the best luck at Daytona last week, but that's o.k. It's time to clear the slate and start fresh in race number two. The three-time Phoenix winner is a 30 percent Top-5 finishers and 50 percent Top-10 finisher at the Desert Jewel. In the Sprint Cup Series most recent visit to the Arizona flat track last November, Harvick led 15 laps and stole the victory from stronger teams. He also finished a stellar runner-up in this race one year ago. Given all that we know about Harvick and this facility, it's difficult to pass him over for Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin has been arguably the best short track driver in the series the last few seasons. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has one victory at Phoenix, which came in this race one year ago. Hamlin cracks the Top 5 in better than 47 percent of his starts at PIR. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led close to 400 laps for his career at Phoenix, and he's usually no worse than a Top-10 finisher. The new Gen-6 race car is of little concern in this analysis. Hamlin showed at Daytona last week that he has plenty of speed in his new ride.

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

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 three Top 5s in his last six races at Phoenix International Raceway. He has rather quietly amassed these numbers in the last three 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.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart 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 in November 2011 and dominated the Kobalt Tools 500. However, Smoke wasn't up to the task of bringing home the win in that one 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 36 percent career Top-5 rate and solid 50 percent Top-10 rate.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne is a one -time winner at PIR and he's been very competitive at this facility since the repaving and configuration change a couple seasons ago. Two of his last three trips to the Arizona desert have yielded Top-5 finishes. The No. 5 Chevrolet team will be looking to rebound from their crash and early exit from last weekend's Daytona 500. We think the one-mile oval of Phoenix will be just the place for a rebound effort for Kahne. Considering how good he and crew chief Kenny Francis have been at PIR, don't be surprised if you see Kahne finish inside the Top 5 on Sunday afternoon.

Brad Keselowski -
The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion comes to Phoenix to continue the defense of his crown in 2013. The Penske Racing star will be making his eighth start at this flat Arizona oval this weekend. While his career numbers are lacking, Keselowski's 2012 stats at this facility were off the chart. That leads us to be very optimistic that the driver of the No. 2 Ford likes the newer configuration of this track. Keselowski led 13 laps between both Phoenix races last year and picked up respectable fifth- and sixth-place finishes. We expect him to even raise the bar this time around at PIR.

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

Matt Kenseth -
Having a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota will mean all the difference in the world for Kenseth this weekend. The veteran driver never really has been a big performer at the irregular oval outside Phoenix. His lowly 38 percent Top 10 rate at this facility is evidence enough of that. However, way back in history Kenseth actually won at Phoenix International Raceway. He picked up the win in 2002's Checker Auto Parts 500, so there's no doubt he can race this facility to a high level. The fact that JGR has fielded the fastest cars in the series at Phoenix the last couple seasons bodes very well for Kenseth this Sunday afternoon.

Greg Biffle -
Biffle's career numbers at Phoenix lack the pop to make us stand up and pay attention, but his recent body of work is what grabs our eye. The veteran driver of the No. 16 Ford has three Top 10s in his last five trips to the flat oval. In the two races at PIR one season ago netted third- and seventh-place results for the Roush Fenway Racing star. Considering that the No. 16 team is coming off a great Speedweeks at Daytona, we're quite confident that Biffle will hit the ground running in Phoenix.

Mark Martin -
With two career victories and 21 Top-10 finishes, you'd be challenged to find anyone else in the Sprint Cup Series who knows Phoenix as well as Martin. The 32 career starts at the one-mile oval are also the most in the series. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver boasts an average finish of 9.0 over those 24 seasons of racing at PIR and that's simply amazing. Martin's pole position and ninth-place finish in this event one year ago was followed by a 10th-place showing here last November. The No. 55 Toyota team is a good one to roll this weekend.

Kurt Busch -
Considering the struggles that Busch had in 2012, it really stands out when you see that he picked up 15th- and eighth-place finishes at this oval last season. The veteran Furniture Row Racing driver will return to the scene of his eighth-place effort last November with his new No. 78 team that he raced with at the end of last season. Busch has high hopes for the 2013 season, so returning to the place where he started so strongly with this new team should renew some optimism and electricity within this team this weekend. It also doesn't hurt knowing he has a career 55 percent Top-10 rate at PIR.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon's two victories and 19 career Top-10 finishes are second only to Mark Martin among active drivers at PIR. The Hendrick Motorsports star has led close to 400 laps at the one-mile flat track and won here as recently as 2011. These stats all combine to make Gordon a career achievement driver at Phoenix International Raceway. Considering that the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet cracks the Top 10 at a stellar 68 percent rate that makes him a great play this Sunday afternoon.

Aric Almirola -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is looking to build on the success he posted at Phoenix last season. Almirola picked up 12th- and 16th-place finishes on the newly-paved flat track in 2012. These finishes didn't happen by accident. Some of Almirola's best performances last season came on ovals of one-mile or less. As the No. 43 team prepares to follow up their solid 13th-place finish at Daytona this past weekend, it seems the schedule offers a great place for a follow up performance for Almirola.

Bobby Labonte -
The deep sleeper play this week is Labonte. His 16th- and 15th-place finishes at the Phoenix oval last season were his best efforts at the facility since the 2008 season. The No. 47 Toyota team seems to improve each season and Labonte's vast experience seems to be the perfect combination. The veteran driver is fresh off a Top-15 finish in last weekend's Daytona 500 so he's riding high coming to the Arizona desert this week. Labonte's chances for a Top 20 in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 are very good.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jeff Burton -
Earlier in his career, Burton was nothing short of a Phoenix ace. He picked up two victories and seven Top 10s in his first 14 races at the flat oval. But the latter half of Burton's career at the Desert Jewel has been an entirely different story. In just the last eight races alone the veteran driver has struggled to collect only two Top-10 finishes. In this race one year ago the No. 31 Chevrolet suffered an engine failure and Burton finished a career Phoenix worst 33rd. It's best to pass on the Richard Childress Racing veteran this weekend.

Marcos Ambrose -
The Aussie has been improving on ovals for the last couple seasons now, but his Phoenix outings have taken a turn for the worse of late. Ambrose finished a lowly 32nd and 18th in his two Phoenix outings in 2012. Considering the consistency the No. 9 Ford team has displayed, these are results below our expectations. With only one Top-10 finish in nine career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, it's clear we need to sit on the Richard Petty Motorsports driver this weekend and deploy him elsewhere in the schedule.

Danica Patrick -
Despite her career best finish at first career pole position at Daytona last week, we have to give the Stewart Haas Racing fem a downgrade this week. Racing the high banks of Daytona compared to the finesse required to navigate PIR's tricky turns is a completely different race all together. Patrick finished 17th at the Phoenix oval last fall in her only Sprint Cup Series appearance there. While that is encouraging enough, we don't expect her lack of experience on this one-mile oval to be an asset. On the contrary, the driver of the No. 10 Chevrolet could find the going very rough in the Subway Fresh Fit 500.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The NASCAR icon has been among one of the most consistent drivers in the series the last couple seasons, but there are the tracks that we need to look over Earnhardt. In 21 career starts at Phoenix International Speedway he has only eight Top-10 finishes for a 38 percent average. Earnhardt's last four seasons of racing at PIR are the most troubling. He's only visited the Top 10 once in those eight starts. That includes his 14th- and 21st-place finishes at the Arizona oval last year. These are not the numbers we're looking for when we deploy the No. 88 Chevrolet team.