The Checker Auto Parts 500 is the 35th race on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup Series schedule. The Cup Series visits the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway for the second time in 2006. PIR has hosted the Nextel Cup Series since 1988. The first Nextel Cup winner at PIR was Alan Kulwicki. The track is a very flat and oddly-shaped oval track with 11 degrees of banking in turns 1 and 2 and just nine in turns 3 and 4. The backstretch, which is shaped like a D written by a kindergartener, also has nine degrees of banking, while the straight frontstretch has just three degrees. Drivers will race 500 laps for the checkered flag. The field will include 2005 fall polesitter Denny Hamlin and race winner Kyle Busch.
51 teams will compete for 43 starting spots for Sunday, with the Top 35 in car owner points guaranteed a starting position. 2006 owner points determine who is in this group for qualifying purposes for the remainder of the season. Qualifying runs consist 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.
To the Point
The points lead swapped again after Texas, with a streaking Jimmie Johnson taking over the top spot for the first time in the three years he’s made the Chase. Johnson scored his fourth finish of second or better in a row after a slow start to the Chase. Despite poor luck early on at TMS, Matt Kenseth rallied to a 12th-place finish and lurks in second, just 17 points behind Johnson. Dale Earnhardt Jr., just 78 points back in third, and Hamlin, sitting fourth, 80 behind Johnson, could easily capitalize should Johnson or Kenseth falter. Fifth-place Kevin Harvick is another driver poised to play the spoiler, 105 points off the top spot.
While the drivers in sixth through 10th are a longshot at best for this year’s title, there are still plenty of bragging rights at stake. Jeff Gordon‘s relatively uneventful Texas race moved him up a spot to sixth, while Jeff Burton‘s bad luck continued, dropping him two to seventh. Busch grabbed two spots on a strong Texas run, while Mark Martin‘s accident-ridden streak hit again, dropping him to ninth, and engine failure with just six laps remaining relegated Kasey Kahne to the basement, 290 points behind Johnson. Nobody has been mathematically eliminated yet, but some teams will be shut out of the championship picture after Phoenix.
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 turn 2 has been reduced somewhat, but still makes for an interesting entry to the backstretch.
Turns 1 and 2 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 of 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
The driver with the best average finish at PIR has never visited victory lane there. Johnson has never won at PIR, but he’s never finished outside the top 15, either. With an average finish of eighth, Johnson is certainly in position to have another solid points day. The chasers most likely to give Johnson a run for his money? Kenseth runs hot and cold at PIR; he has a win, but his average finish is just shy of 20th. Earnhardt has two wins but his average is only a slightly better 17th.
Outside the Chase but looking to play spoiler is a red-hot Tony Stewart. With no points pressure, the defending champ has been driving ’em like he stole ’em lately. Kurt Busch has a win at PIR and needs a good run at Penske to close the year. Bobby Labonte is also consistently good at Phoenix and his Petty Enterprises team has been sneaking up on the race leaders all fall.
Did You Know?
- That no pole winner has ever won the same race at Phoenix? In fact, less than half of all races at PIR have been won from a top-10 starting spot.
- That PIR’s youngest winner (Kyle Busch at 20) was less than half the age of the oldest winner (Rusty Wallace at 42)?
- That Martin, Ken Schrader and Dale Jarrett have started every Cup race at PIR?
You Don’t Say…
“When I first started running here, I didn’t get around the place very good. I raced mid-pack or toward the back of the field. It was just a real hot, slick racetrack for me. I don’t know what happened, but we showed up one week and this thing was just really, really fast and we’ve been fast ever since. It’s something in the set-up of the car that Tony Jr. found – maybe testing at Richmond or somewhere – that helped us at Phoenix. That’s really how we won those races and it’s been fast ever since.” – Dale Earnhardt Jr. on learning to be fast at PIR
“I’ve never won the championship, but I would trade all my victories for a championship. In my life, everything I’ve done has been all about being the champion. That’s been my goal.” – Jimmie Johnson on what a Nextel Cup title would mean to him.
“I’m looking forward to doing some hunting, spending some time in Kentucky and catching up on things around the house. What usually happens, though, is that you start getting antsy after you sit on the couch for a couple of weekends in a row. I guess the grass is always greener.” – driver Jeff Green on the impending offseason
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