The Subway Fresh 500 is the eighth event on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Schedule. The Cup Series will visit the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway twice in 2006; they’ll return during the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup in November. PIR has hosted the Nextel Cup Series every year since 1988, with the inaugural race won by Alan Kulwicki. The track is a very flat and oddly shaped oval track with 11 degrees of banking in turns one and two, but just nine in turns three and four. The backstretch, shaped like a D written by a kindergartener, also has nine degrees of banking, while the straight-line frontstretch is banked just three degrees. Drivers will race 500 laps for the checkered flag. The field will include 2005 spring polesitter Jeff Gordon and race winner Kurt Busch.
49 teams competed for 43 starting spots for Sunday, with the Top 35 in car owner points guaranteed a starting position. 2006 owner points determined who was in this group for qualifying purposes; among the “go or go home” drivers, Kevin LePage, Morgan Shepherd, Chad Chaffin, Chad Blount, Mike Garvey, and Steve Portenga missed the race. Qualifying runs consisted of two laps, with the fastest lap setting a team’s time. The Nextel Cup Series qualifying record at Phoenix is 135.854 mph, set by Ryan Newman in 2004. Kyle Busch won the pole at Phoenix this time around, but did not defeat that track record
The Nextel Cup Series points race is proving to be almost anyone’s to win so far in 2006. Jimmie Johnson still holds the points lead by virtue of two wins and five Top 10 finishes in seven races, but Matt Kenseth is hot on his heels in second, just 15 points back. Kasey Kahne, like Johnson, has two wins and five Top 10s so far this season, and currently sits third in the points. Mark Martin and Tony Stewart complete the Top 5.
What To Expect
Phoenix is a funny little track that doesn’t quite race like other tracks its size. Like New Hampshire International Speedway, it is a very flat mile where passing is difficult, but the D-shape and subsequently faster backstretch runs more like Richmond. The dogleg coming off of turn two has been reduced somewhat, but still makes for an interesting entry to the backstretch.
Turns one and two not only have different banking, but different radii as well, making it hard, if not impossible, to set up a car that is perfect through both sets of corners. Passing is at a premium, so a driver who can put himself in a position to take the lead in the closing laps with a car that handles well may have an advantage over a slightly faster car that does not get either into or off the corners as well. Pit strategy can also play a role, as PIR often does not produce a high number of caution periods.
Who to Watch
Once again, the Roush Racing cars are on the type of track where they excel. Matt Kenseth was brilliantly consistent to start this season, and won at PIR in 2002. Greg Biffle finished 2nd at Phoenix in November, and is looking to turn around a dismal beginning to the season before it’s too late. Mark Martin has only one career win at Phoenix, but more Top 5 (eight) and Top 10 (thirteen) finishes here than any other driver. Their teammates, Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray, are looking to reap results from a crew chief switch this week that saw Bob Osborne move over to the 26 car, with Wally Brown moving up to crew chief the 99.
This is not to say that Roush has a lock on the trophy. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has had two wins at PIR and has come on like gangbusters in the last few weeks. Kurt Busch led Thursday’s practice sessions and won here last spring. Hendrick Motorsports is rarely out of their element, and driver Jimmie Johnson has an excellent PIR track record; in just five seasons, he’s completed every lap of every race, with an average finish of ninth. Jeff Gordon can count PIR as one of only four tracks where he has never won, a number he’d dearly love to reduce to three this weekend. Tony Stewart is a threat on any track that, like Phoenix, depends on a strong setup and an aggressive wheelman.
Despite three rookies that qualified in the Top 10 Thursday night, PIR could prove tough for this year’s rookie class. It’s the first flat miler on the schedule, and although all of them have run it in the Busch Series and a few took it on last Fall in the Cup cars, PIR is a quirky place. Stewart won here as a rookie, and his teammate J.J. Yeley has been solid so far this year. Yeley has a similar driving style to Stewart, so he just may be Rookie of the Race.
Finally, need a darkhorse pick? Go with Jeff Burton, whose last win came at PIR in 2001; his patient style fits this track perfectly.
Did You Know:
- Despite a lot of laps on a flat track, PIR does not always have a high attrition rate? 41 of 43 starters have completed the race twice.
- That there are no current Nextel Cup drivers from Arizona?
- That a 312-lap race at PIR has been carried off with only two caution periods?
- That Mark Martin, Ken Schrader, and Dale Jarrett have started every Cup race at PIR?
You Don’t Say"¦
"It all came about due to a conversation I had with Humpy Wheeler a few weeks before we raced at Bristol. Everyone knows by now that I have been trying to improve the image I have out there. Yes, I’ve probably slipped a few times here and there. But, I have reached out to several people in our business that I admire and respect. Humpy is surely at the top of that list. In the one-to-one I had with Humpy, he was so helpful, so positive and so eager to give me good advice. Among the things he told me was that I should feel so fortunate to be where I am and doing what I’m doing now. He pointed out that there are probably hundreds of talented young drivers out there who can win races, but will never have the opportunity. I feel so blessed to be racing for Roger Penske and Miller Lite. He told me that I should make the best of my situation. I need to express my gratitude openly and display it to the fans. He noted that we’re all participating in one of the greatest sports ever. But at the end of the day, the bottom line is that what we do is still all about the entertainment business. He advised me to be myself and enjoy what I do, but to be unique and to let my personality shine. He told me to be exciting to watch and dazzling on and off the track." driver Kurt Busch on why he made snow angels at Bristol and Texas, and on getting image advice from a master
"I’ve struggled at Phoenix for some reason in the Cup cars. It’s been a fun track for me because I’ve had the opportunity to run stock cars, Indy Cars, and Indy Lights cars. But it’s been challenging on the Cup side. Two years ago, we had an awesome car; we drove through the field and we were running third when we blew a left rear tire with less than 10 laps to go. I think we really had a good shot at winning the race. I know Donnie (Wingo) and the guys have been working hard all week, and I typically run better at this track once it cools down. I think the night race is going to be beneficial for me and the entire team." driver Casey Mears on struggling and improving at PIR
"Turn four is everything there. If you butcher (turn) four, it ruins your whole lap and part of your next lap. That’s where we’ve been so good in the past "" getting that big run off of four. The times we won there, nobody could touch us coming off that turn." driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. on PIR
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