The true beginning of the NASCAR season in Phoenix

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Everything you saw last week in the Daytona 500, throw it away and don’t let anything you saw persuade you into betting the likes of top five finishers Trevor Bayne, David Gilliland and Bobby Labonte this week.

File those finishes in the back of your mind until they roll up to Talladega in April.

This week, there will be no upsets, no gimmicks and no restrictor plates. It’s all about the car and driver at Phoenix International Raceway. If looking for a 100-1 payout again with the likes of Bayne, you’ll have to wait until Talladega. But if you’re looking to use your handicapping skills to the fullest, Phoenix is your race.

This is the true beginning of the season where the drivers who are expected to compete for the Championship will all fare well.

The best car usually wins at Phoenix. After looking at all the practice data, you can key in on about three of four drivers and have a legitimate shot.

This week also presents a great shot at winning some driver vs. driver matchups where all the information holds true, unlike what we saw at Daytona.

Usually, we don’t see Phoenix until April, but a change in this year’s schedule eliminated California’s date bringing us great one-mile track action in the desert. We saw the drivers compete at Phoenix in the second to last race of the 2010 season with Carl Edwards dominating the speed charts coming in and then winning the race.

In the April race, Ryan Newman won the green-white-checker finish. Newman would finish second to Edwards in the fall as well.

We can use a lot of what happened last year and expect similar instances to occur this week, beginning with Edwards. He had gone 70 races without winning a race, winless the entire 2009 season, before capturing that Phoenix win.

Edwards followed that up with a season-ending win at Homestead and finished runner-up last week at Daytona. There is no hotter driver than Edwards right now coming into Phoenix.

The Phoenix win last season was the first of his career on the track, but he accumulated four other top fives over his career on the track. Only five other drivers have a better average finish at Phoenix than Edwards over his career since he started in 2004.

Jimmie Johnson is a four-time winner at Phoenix who hasn’t finished outside the top five in a race there since the spring of 2006, and that was a very solid seventh-place finish.

Denny Hamlin led the most laps in the fall race last year and finished 12th, a race that probably costs him the 2010 season title. In 11 starts at Phoenix, Hamlin has six finishes within the top six and has an average finish of 11.6, good enough for fourth best among active drivers.

Mark Martin won this race in 1993, and again in 2009, and has maintained his excellence over the years with only Johnson having a better average finish during his career on the track. Since winning in 2009, Martin has two fourth-place finishes and an eighth.

Jeff Gordon had gone his whole career without winning at Phoenix until 2007, but had always excelled on the track with quality finishes. In this race last year that Newman won, Gordon had the thing all sewed up, but got beat off the line in the overtime restart and had to settle for a runner-up finish.

Jeff Burton won back-to-back Phoenix races in 2000 and 2001 and has stayed consistent since despite not winning again. Nothing bad seems to happen to Burton at Phoenix, which makes him a great play in matchups. He always manages to get a top 10 finish.

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