After what many had hoped would be a good old-fashioned Texas shootout turned into a king-sized snooze fest, the series heads to Phoenix International Raceway this Saturday night for the first short-track battle under the lights of the season. With the exception of Jeff Gordon‘s dismal performance, Texas didn’t offer many surprises with no major upsets appearing in the top 10. But the close confines of the 1-mile track in the Valley of the Sun, could have plenty of surprises in store for the drivers in this week’s race. So which drivers will rise from the ashes to bring success to your fantasy team and which ones will wilt in the desert heat? Read this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans to find out.
Cami’s Race Rewind
Last April, Gordon managed to cross two things off his to-do list with just one race; one, to finally win a race at PIR and earn his 76th career victory to tie the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. in all-time wins. But even after starting from the pole, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Gordon would be in victory lane later that night. The Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin dominated another CoT race only to see the win slip out of their hands. Stewart, who led a race-high 132 laps, seemed to be on his way to the win when the yellow came out on lap 283. Stewart was leading the race, with Gordon in the pits for what was going to be a green-flag stop. But given his pit stall selection, Gordon was able to complete his stop and assume the lead when the rest of the field came down pit road. Stewart gave Gordon all he could handle over the last 20 laps, but in the end couldn’t make the final pass. Hamlin rebounded from a speeding penalty early in the race to finish third, followed by Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Phoenix is the ultimate track of compromise on the Cup schedule. Turns 1 and 2 are a very tight radius with 11 degrees of banking, while 3 and 4 are a longer, more sweeping turn, with only nine degrees of banking. There is no way to set up a car so that it runs perfectly through both corners, so the teams have to decide which end of the track is more important to them. Getting through 3 and 4 better gets the driver more speed down the frontstretch, but then they have to get through 1 and 2 where they don’t handle as well. If the driver can get through 1 and 2 well, they will have more speed down the backstretch, but then have to handle 3 and 4 where they don’t maneuver as well. So it all comes down to what the driver wants and where they feel like they will be able to handle a car that is not optimum. Fortunately for the teams, they have already run the current car configuration at Phoenix, so they do have notes to fall back on. Therefore, it is a good idea to think about using the drivers who ran well at Phoenix last year, or have run well on short tracks this year. Obviously Richard Childress, who had the top three at Bristol is a good choice, along with Hendrick, whose drivers won the races at Phoenix last year. Don’t count out Joe Gibbs, who has visited victory lane with Hamlin on a short track this year.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Kevin Harvick has won at Phoenix twice (both races in 2006) and has an average finish of 14.4 on the track in 10 Cup races. Harvick has proven to run well in the current car configuration on short tracks, and was strong on short tracks before this new car came into use. With the strength that Childress has shown on short tracks already this year, and Harvick’s history at Phoenix, it is a good bet that he’s going to have a strong run this weekend.
Johnson has the second-best average finish among active drivers in the Cup Series and is the most recent winner in a Cup car at Phoenix. Add to that the fact that he finished fourth at Martinsville, and it appears as though the team has gotten back on track with the new car configuration, and it is a good bet that he will end up near the front of the pack again this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Jamie McMurray has had two weeks of decent showings on tracks where he has historically run well. Now the circuit is heading back to a track where he has not performed well in the past. The time has come for the old Picks ‘N’ Pans favorite to hit the pine again. McMurray has an average finish of 24.6 at Phoenix and has two finishes of 14th or better in nine races and has as many finishes of 40th. McMurray has worked his way away from the danger line at 35th in owner points, but he is heading to a track where he could easily drop back down in the standings. Don’t expect to see McMurray running up front this weekend.
Elliott Sadler has not exactly been lighting the world on fire over the last few races, although he did have decent runs at Bristol and Martinsville, his average finish at Phoenix is 24.5, with no finishes in his last four races higher than 17th and two of those 34th or worse. Sadler has been a decent runner on short tracks over his career, but Phoenix has not been a good track for him. This week is a good one for you to look away from the No. 19.
Roll the Dice:
Gordon has the highest average finish among all active drivers at Phoenix with an average of 6.5 since 1998. Phoenix was one of three tracks where Gordon had failed to take the checkered flag first heading into last season, but last year, at this race, he took the victory and checked that track off of his yet to conquer list. In 13 races since 1998, Gordon has only one finish outside the top 10, and that was a 12th-place finish. He has five top fives and 12 top-10 finishes over that span. Expect to see Gordon rebound from his dismal performance at Texas with a very strong run this weekend.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Starting with his fifth-place finish at Las Vegas, Jeff Burton has a string of five straight top-10 finishes which have put him on top of the Sprint Cup standings. Since 1998, Burton has not finished lower than 15th at Phoenix and has two wins to his credit. The driver of the No. 31 is also the only driver on the circuit to have run each lap run this year, once again showing his knack for consistency and patience to stay out of trouble. With an average finish of 8.7 at Phoenix and his current hot streak, it’s hard to pass up Burton for your fantasy team this weekend.
In last year’s race at Phoenix, Stewart looked poised to earn his second career win at PIR; but a late-race pit stop put him behind Gordon and he ran out of time to make up the lost ground. We all know Stewart doesn’t deal well with disappointment, so look for a strong run out of the Home Depot driver this weekend. Smoke has scored top-10 finishes in three of the last four races and at Phoenix he has finished in the top five in four of the last five races; including both races run here in the CoT/new car configuration. Currently he’s the only driver in the JGR stable without a win, but that could change this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
David Ragan has shown improvement so far in 2008, but using him this weekend at Phoenix may be more of a risk than you really need to take. In his two starts at PIR last year, he finished 41st and 32nd, not exactly numbers that will knock your socks off. Plus finding consistency and keeping his momentum this year has been something he’s had trouble with this season. He was 14th and seventh at California and Vegas; but then had two straight finishes outside the top 20 before finally finishing 11th at Martinsville. Keep an eye on Ragan’s progress this year, he may be a good pick for down the road but wait to see if he really has turned a corner before you take such a gamble.
Another driver who has shown improvement this year is David Gilliland, but again like Ragan doesn’t necessarily mean you should use him this weekend at Phoenix. In his short career at Phoenix, his results have continued to slide downward instead of getting better; cumulating in finishes of 35th and 28th in the two CoT races there in 2007. Another downside to Gilliland is that he has a problem with qualifying. His best starting spot of the year was 21st and Martinsville where he finished 24th. More often than not, he starts each race 30th or lower; that kind of deficit won’t bode well for him on a 1-mile track like Phoenix.
Roll the Dice:
After taking Bristol and Martinsville off, Mark Martin returned to action last weekend at Texas and scored his second top-10 finish of the year. Look for Martin to build off that strong performance this weekend at Phoenix, where his 608 laps led is most of any driver in track history and by over 160 more than the driver in second place. Martin’s track record at Phoenix also boasts an impressive 14 top 10s in 22 starts. Don’t let his part-time schedule fool you, Martin can still get it done when he’s at the track even when he’s not there each week.
Mike: The readers had to be pretty pleased with your crank picks last week. A second and a seventh is pretty good. I was thinking I was really going to hit it big until Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost the handle at the end of the race. But I’ll take a victory any time.
Cami: And congrats on that. I thought things were going to be pretty rough for me when Junior was running up front too. That’s not to say that 12th is a terrible day. You could have had Gordon last week instead of this week. One do over I’d like is Ryan Newman. You know I was debating sitting him or Greg Biffle last week and obviously I made the wrong pick there.
Mike: You most certainly did. But we all know how your Sit ‘Em picks can pan out. We’ve seen you bless Casey Mears with some very strong finishes in the past by sitting him down. As for this week, do you think Burton is going to continue the magic and become a three-time winner at Phoenix?
Cami: I don’t focus solely on getting the top spot each week; that’s not to say that I don’t think Burton is capable of winning for a second time this year. But I think for fantasy it’s important to put in a driver who you think will make a top-five or top-10 run. And I really think Burton is going to do that. He’s really hooked up right now and is running well. Speaking of Jeffs, do you think Gordon can exorcise the demons of last week at Texas?
Mike: Well, he does have the best average finish at Phoenix since 1998, and he is the defending race winner. After finishing 43rd for the second time in his career, I think he is definitely going to come out with guns blazing this weekend. It is going to be interesting to see if Stewart can finally get his first win of the season.
Cami: If Gordon doesn’t come out with guns blazing this weekend, his chances at title five might be what’s on fire. As far as Tony, I would guess it has to be eating at him that his teammates have won this year and he hasn’t. He could have easily won here last year if not for that slow stop at the end of the race. While we are on the subject of teamamtes, I see you’re going with Harvick this week.
Mike: Yes, Harvick is a strong short-track racer, Childress is really running well everywhere but especially at short tracks, and he’s won twice in Phoenix. He is also looking stronger than he did last year where he pretty much fell off the map after he won the 500. I think this is going to be a big weekend for him. I also see you’re still drinking the Martin Kool-Aid. Has Vito been sending you PR clippings again?
Cami: Not that I’ve noticed, but I will double check the ol’ inbox. But Martin’s stats at Phoenix were enough to catch my attention. Like I mentioned earlier, he’s lead more laps at PIR than any other driver and by quite a large margin. I wasn’t arguing with your Harvick pick, he’s just not someone you normally go for. Unlike your Sit ‘Em picks… I HAVE seen those guys before.
Mike: I know, I just couldn’t help it. I think the Sadler pick is probably going to bite me. He’s had some really crappy luck this year and he’s not run badly on short tracks this year. But Phoenix is not a good track for him so I feel secure in putting him on the bench. As far as MACMurray, we all know how I feel about him, and he’s back at a track where his record speaks for itself. We’ll just have to see how it pans out.
The following are the guidelines that Cami and Mike follow in making their picks each week: Crank ‘Em Up drivers can be in any position in the driver standings, Sit ‘Em Down drivers must be in the current top 25 of the driver standings and Roll the Dice drivers can not be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.
Crank – 12.2
Sit – 20.6
Roll – 15.6
Crank – 12.1
Sit – 22.2
Roll – 17.3