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AdvoCare 500 Preview: Duel 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.

As the season draws to a close, the Chase for the Sprint Cup brings us to 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, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick will be driving over each other to get ahead 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 eight 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 17 races at Phoenix International Raceway.

Jimmie Johnson6.24665388474,749116.4
Carl Edwards10.43653323503,645100.6
Denny Hamlin9.83722353993,799100.3
Tony Stewart13.04402204004,14699.2
Kevin Harvick11.63652454204,03599.0
Jeff Gordon13.03791972244,29298.8
Kurt Busch13.83432855213,70797.7
Kyle Busch13.94662475094,22497.5
Mark Martin10.33432874403,55397.5
Greg Biffle13.93562833883,09092.0
Matt Kenseth17.03821711533,21087.0
Ryan Newman18.545073623,51686.8
Jeff Burton13.04538273,33285.0
Brad Keselowski17.9196118331,30183.3
Martin Truex Jr.18.43141511012,82683.2
Dale Earnhardt Jr.18.62231301972,34082.6
A.J. Allmendinger15.722041171,73482.1
Clint Bowyer16.927988212,63881.3
Juan Pablo Montoya15.8259931161,93780.1
Kasey Kahne19.9296130142,56177.5

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 four of the last six 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 Matt Kenseth in his quest to remain in the hunt for this season's championship. Before we hand the trophy to either Johnson or Kenseth, let's not rule out Kevin Harvick just yet though. He has three career victories at this facility, and one of those came in this event one year ago. So there's absolutely no doubt that the Richard Childress Racing star has the experience to pull a big upset in Sunday's AdvoCare 500. These drivers will be joined by short track specialists Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski 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 earlier this season at PIR, so the Roush Fenway Racing contingent is all capable of some big things at the Phoenix oval. One thing is for certain, when the green flag drops at Phoenix International Raceway 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 the Phoenix short track and those who could sneak up and surprise the big teams.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jimmie Johnson -
Thanks to his dominant victory at Texas, Johnson heads to Phoenix this weekend with a seven-point lead in the championship chase ahead of Matt Kenseth. 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 13 Top-5 finishes in 20 career starts (65 percent). The Hendrick Motorsports star is rolling downhill towards another championship, and Phoenix could be the oval that propels him over the top.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon has had his share of success in the form two wins and 20 Top 10s in 29 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 Top-10 finish there in the spring of this year. Gordon's big win at the Martinsville short track two weeks ago is about the best indicator of his potential this Sunday at PIR. That's reason to be encouraged heading into the AdvoCare 500. Three of his last five starts at the Arizona oval have netted Top-10 finishes, including a victory in 2011.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick has a lot on the line this weekend at PIR. He's 40 points back of Chase leader Jimmie Johnson and his championship hopes are hanging by a thread. 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 has a strong recent resume at this Arizona short track. He has one win, one runner-up finish and three Top 5s in his last five trips to Phoenix. Harvick's 104 laps led over that span rank him among the elite in the series in recent performance at the flat short track. If there's a dark horse among the contenders, Harvick is it.

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star heads to Phoenix as a driver on his way back to the top. After a back injury earlier in the year, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has been gradually upping his performance the last couple months. This week he visits one of his better ovals in Phoenix International Raceway. Hamlin has great stats at this oval that are worth considering despite his down season overall. He has one pole position, one victory and three Top-3 finishes in his last three starts at PIR. Hamlin led 46 laps and finished second in this race one year ago. With an impressive average finish of 9.8 at this D-shaped oval, we have to give the driver of the No. 11 Toyota due consideration for the AdvoCare 500.

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

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Given the hot streak that Earnhardt is on entering this weekend, we have to give a strong recommendation to the No. 88 team at Phoenix. The NASCAR icon is a two-time winner with nine Top-10 finishes at the Arizona short track. He led 47 laps here in March and finished an impressive fifth in the Subway Fresh Fit 500. It was Earnhardt's best Phoenix finish since 2008. Considering that the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet finished runner-up in our most recent short track outing (Martinsville) you have to like him this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.

Carl Edwards -
The Roush Fenway Racing star is looking to rebound from his engine failure at Texas this past weekend. Edwards has been a top performer at PIR throughout his nine-season Sprint Cup Series career. He has three pole positions, two victories and 11 Top-10 finishes in his 18 starts at the Desert Jewel. That works out to a strong 61 percent Top 10 rate at the facility. Edwards led 122 laps and won the spring race at Phoenix when he took the checkered flag in the Subway Fresh Fit 500. He may not win this Sunday afternoon, but he should be far off the leader's rear bumper cover.

Brad Keselowski -
While the No. 2 Ford team isn't racing for the championship, that in no way makes Keselowski a no-go driver for Phoenix weekend. Keselowski has fifth-, sixth- and fourth-place finishes in his last three trips to PIR. He recently qualified 11th and finished a brilliant fourth at the flat oval in Martinsville. The skill and determination of this driver and team are not in question since his late season hot streak started a Charlotte a few weeks ago. 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 two pole positions, one win and 10 Top 10s in 17 races at the desert oval. His most recent outings have yielded a sixth-, third- and 23rd-place finish. That illustrates his inconsistency at Phoenix. However, over that three-race span he led a whopping 289 laps at the flat oval. So the upside is pretty tremendous, balanced with a career 59 percent Top 10 rate, which isn't so bad itself. The No. 18 team has something to prove this Sunday afternoon, so Busch should have some major potential in the AdvoCare 500.

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

Matt Kenseth -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star has a pretty uninspiring record at Phoenix International Raceway. Most of the accomplishments Kenseth has made at the Arizona flat track came earlier in his career. It all adds up to one victory and nine Top 10s (41 percent). The No. 20 Toyota team came here in the spring of this year and Kenseth went to work right away trying to rewrite his personal history at this oval. It started with a respectable seventh-place finish in the Subway Fresh Fit 500. With the championship on the line we should see Kenseth's Phoenix "A" game on Sunday.

Clint Bowyer -
Thanks to a 10th-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway, Bowyer heads to Phoenix this weekend with three-race Top 10 streak under his belt. He will need to step up his game at Phoenix on Sunday to keep the streak alive heading to Homestead-Miami. The No. 15 Toyota team is on a roll with five 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 six Top 10s in 16 career starts works out to a lowly 38 percent Top 10 rate. However, the Bowyer we saw here in the spring finished sixth in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 and we're willing to bet we'll see the same driver this Sunday afternoon.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne is winding down his second season with Hendrick Motorsports, and putting the cap on another solid campaign with the No.5 Chevrolet team. He's had an up-and-down Chase for the Cup campaign, but the highs have been pretty remarkable. His dominant performance and runner-up finish at Charlotte and his Top 5 at Texas this past weekend are evidence of this. Kahne doesn't have stellar career numbers at PIR, but his recent visits have been eye-catching. He has one victory, two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in his last five trips to PIR. Kahne finished fourth in this event one year ago, and he could be just as good in this installment of the AdvoCare 500.

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 six Phoenix starts since that victory, Newman has collected four Top-5 finishes, including one runner-up finish. Given his three Top 10s in the last four races entering this weekend, this should be an up-tick weekend for the No. 39 Stewart Haas Chevrolet team.

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 33 career starts he's amassed some eye-popping numbers. He owns three pole positions, two victories, 12 Top 5s and 21 Top 10s at the desert oval. That Top 10 rate works out to an impressive 64 percent rate over 25 years of competition. Martin's last start at PIR yielded a pole position, and 75 laps led before misfortune saddled him with a 21st-place finish. He'll atone for that in Sunday afternoon's 500k race at the Phoenix oval.

Jeff Burton -
You'd be challenged to find many drivers in the series that have accomplished as much as Burton at Phoenix. The RCR veteran has 28 career starts at the Desert Jewel, which ranks him fourth among active drivers. Burton has two victories and 14 Top-10 finishes in those starts, which works out to a respectable 50 percent rate for the driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet. His most recent start at the flat oval yielded a Top-10 finish in March's Subway Fresh Fit 500. Burton is clearly a Top-15 finisher this weekend at the flat Arizona oval.

Aric Almirola -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is putting the finishing touches on a decent season. Almirola is on track to finish around 18th in the championship standings and with a career-best six Top-10 finishes. 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, those handful of starts have been very strong. The RPM driver has 12th-, 16th- and 15th-place finishes at PIR leading up to this weekend. That works out to a respectable 14.3 average finish at the track. Almirola and the No. 43 team should challenge the Top 15 again this Sunday in the AdvoCare 500.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Martin Truex Jr. -
The No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing team is counting down the hours until the team fades to black and trying to remain relevant coming to Phoenix this weekend. Truex has only five Top-10 finishes in his 15 career starts at PIR. Recent outings at the Arizona short track have been particularly tough for this veteran driver. Truex has only one Top 10 in his last seven starts at Phoenix. It's best to stay clear of any fantasy racing expectations for this driver and team this weekend.

David Ragan -
Of the full-time drivers in the Sprint Cup Series, Ragan has by far had the toughest time of them all in the last three seasons of racing at Phoenix. The Front Row Motorsports driver has also been plagued with some recent performance issues at the No. 34 Ford team. Ragan has a career 28.0 average finish at Phoenix International Raceway, and that's thanks in part to his four finishes outside the Top 30 in the last five starts there. Ragan has finishes of 43rd- and 42nd- in each of the last two races thanks to engine failures. We can't yell "stay away" loud enough.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver is putting the finishing touches on a career season. Logano has a career-best 11 Top-5 and 17 Top-10 finishes in 2013, and he's poised to finish in the Top 10 in the driver standings for the first time ever. Set that all aside coming to PIR Sunday afternoon. Logano has a scant three Top 10s in nine starts at this small oval. His last two trips to Arizona have netted subpar 27th- and 26th-place finishes. Logano hasn't stumbled much this year, but this weekend could be one of those instances.

Kurt Busch -
No matter what happens from this point on in the 2013 season, Busch has had an incredible season. He put the small Furniture Row Racing team in the Chase and the veteran driver is poised to finish in the Top 10 of the standings with 15 Top-10 finishes to this point in the season. However, the remarkable driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet has cooled off considerably during the Chase. Busch only has two Top 10s in the eight races to date. With only one Top 10 in his last four trips to PIR, chances for a strong effort this weekend seem slim.