The Nextel Cup season is coming to a close; there are only two races left on the schedule before the champion is crowned. The title battle is coming more into focus with each race… as it must be in your local fantasy league. While no one is technically eliminated from the Nextel Cup title chase, there are realistically only five drivers with a shot to take home the hardware in Homestead. This week, they come to Phoenix, the last short track on the schedule; the 1-mile track always serves as a true test. Are you ready to step up to the challenge, defeating the short list of competitors still eligible for a title in your own league? Read on to get solid advice on how to clinch your fantasy championship a week ahead of schedule.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Phoenix is a very tricky racetrack. The corners have different radii, with turns 1 and 2 being more gradual and sweeping and turns 3 and 4 much tighter and more abrupt. A few years ago, the wall at the exit of turn 2 was moved out to allow for side-by-side racing off of the corner and onto the backstretch. Phoenix is similar to Pocono in that a team cannot really make their car handle perfectly on both ends of the track. The teams that succeed are the ones that can come up with the most successful compromise between the two ends. The other aspect of the track is its lack of banking; look for teams that generally succeed on flat tracks to do well at Phoenix.
Cami’s Instant Replay
The Busch brothers dominated the headlines last year at Phoenix. Older brother Kurt Busch had his infamous run-in with the local sheriffs that got him suspended for the remainder of the season, while younger brother Kyle speed his way into Victory Lane for the second time in his Cup career. Greg Biffle dominated the race, leading 189 of 312 laps, but was passed by Busch on lap 285 after a dogfight for the top spot and finished the day in second place. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte rounded out the top five. Stewart’s fourth-place finish, coupled with a seventh-place run for Jimmie Johnson, gave Smoke a 52-point lead in the standings going into the final race of the year at Homestead.
Crank ‘Em Up
Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t have a high average finish at Phoenix. However, when Tony Eury Jr. played a key role with the No. 8 team from 2002 through 2004, Junior had two wins and a fifth-place finish. Look for him to regain that form this weekend and bring the car home at the front of the field.
Jeff Burton has not finished outside of the top 15 at Phoenix in the last 10 races at the track, with an average finish of 6.8. Burton has had a rough stretch of luck lately, and needs a strong run to move up near the top of the standings heading into Homestead. Look for the No. 31 RCR team to have a strong run this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down
Elliott Sadler is not very good at Phoenix; he’s got just one top-10 finish in nine races at the track. Add to that Evernham Motorsports isn’t very strong on flat tracks, and you have a recipe for disaster for the No. 19 bunch. Sadler has had some terrible luck of late, and it most likely won’t turn around this weekend.
Jamie McMurray has run six races at Phoenix, failing to score a top 10 in any of those races. He has had very few good runs mixed in with quite a few bad ones for Roush Racing this year. Don’t anticipate a change this weekend.
Roll the Dice
Ken Schrader has the most wins in the history of Phoenix International Raceway. ‘Nuff said.
Crank ‘Em Up
Gordon has a couple of things going for him this weekend that make him a good bet at Phoenix. One is his great track record. Despite never making it to Victory Lane, Gordon has the best average finish over the past 10 races at the track of any active driver; it’s an eye-popping 6.8. The second thing is simple but important: he just got married. Remember what happened right after he got engaged? He won at Sonoma. Gordon’s on a roll lately, on and off the track it seems, and if he wants ANY chance of winning the title, he’ll need a big finish here this weekend.
Once again, I’m going all Hendrick. With the kind of hot streak Johnson has been on, how can you not take him? Even if he does break his streak of top-two finishes, looking at his Phoenix results, he should easily bring in a good finish. In four out of the last five Phoenix races, he has finished in the top 10. I’m not 100% sold on Johnson winning the championship this year, but I think if the big letdown comes, it will be at Homestead next week and not at Phoenix.
Sit ‘Em Down
Even though Casey Mears has a shot at passing Biffle in the standings, I don’t see him getting much help at Phoenix doing that. In five starts at the track, he has cracked the top 20 just once. There are plenty of other “B” league type drivers out there to pick from that run better at Phoenix than Mears.
It’s been 10 races since Ryan Newman has seen a top-10 finish, and I’m banking on it being 11 this week. As usual, Newman has been qualifying decently, even though it’s been almost five months since his last pole, but he hasn’t been able to turn Friday success into decent Sunday finishes. That’s been his problem all year and why he sits 18th in the standings. And with only two top 10s at Phoenix and three finishes of 39th or worse in eight races, expect his problems to continue.
Roll the Dice
Here’s a big shocker. Pick Stewart this week! He’s on a roll with back-to-back wins and has nothing to lose as he goes for win number three this weekend at Phoenix. Even if he wasn’t riding the wave of momentum, Stewart would still be a top-caliber pick this weekend. With six top 10s in nine races at PIR, you can’t go wrong with Smoke on your roster.
Mike: You’re going to be hating life sitting Mears this week. He’s going to have a real shot at winning.
Cami: Well, with how my Sit ‘Ems have been going lately, you might have a point. But why do you think he’s going to do so great? He’s never finished higher than 20th at Phoenix.
Mike: He should have won there a year or two ago and had a flat tire on the next to last lap. Ganassi has made great strides in their short track program, too. I think he’s going to have a good run.
Cami: Shoulda, coulda, woulda. Just ask your pick last week about that.
Mike: Yeah, I was feeling pretty good about Kasey Kahne when he and Stewart were running 1 and 2. Too bad it didn’t last.
Cami: Well, I ended up hurting on my end, too; it was that stinkin’ Kyle Busch that killed me!
Mike: You should know better than to pick against him on a mile-and-a-half track. He’ll bite you hard on those.
Cami: He can bite my butt for all I care. I’m not using him the rest of the year! All two races, that is.
Mike: Let’s move on to this week. Way to go out on a limb picking Stewart for Roll the Dice!
Cami: Hey, I need the points to catch up… blame Shrub for that!
Mike: It’s OK. I let “the lady” pick first, so I can’t blame you. I hope your jinx on your Crank ‘Em Ups continues with Johnson, though, so that the race for the title stays close through Homestead.
Cami: I wasn’t jinxed on the Crank ‘Em Ups last week. I had two top 10s. I do see your point though on Johnson. So IF that should happen, I can still be semi-happy. I think the newlywed will come through for me, too.
Mike: You never know. He may be hung over from the honeymoon.
Cami: I’m trying so hard not to make a snide comment there about Gordon. I think he was out of it so early, how bad he’s doing just doesn’t matter anymore. Speaking of being out of it… are you having a post-election hangover? What’s up with picking Schrader? I like Kenny and all, but have you seen his Cup record at Phoenix?
Mike: I don’t care. He’s been running pretty well since Fatback came on board, and he has such a good record at Phoenix that I think he’ll surprise everyone. That’s why it’s called a “Roll the Dice” pick. Unlike you, I don’t go for the easy picks like Stewart in that category.
Cami: Well, consider it my little piece of roll-bar padding I’m throwing out there to even up the field a bit.
Mike: I just hope the editor doesn’t fine you for it.
Cami: Ha! I’ll just bribe Tom with some Paris Hilton video.
Mike: I guess we’ll see how THAT pans out.
Standings after Week 8
|Crank Em Up||Kahne- 33rd||-3||Johnson- 2nd||10|
|Stewart- 1st||15||Earnhardt- 6th||5|
|Sit Em Down||Newman- 34th||3||Biffle- 35th||3|
|McMurray- 26th||1||Ky. Busch- 4th||-10|
|Roll the Dice||Mears- 7th||10||Truex Jr- 14th||5|