Phoenix shows NASCAR no longer ‘Southern fried’

Apr 18, 2006 12:52 AM

Though Phoenix International Raceway doesn’t evoke volumes of NASCAR history like Daytona or Darlington might for some old time aficionados, the track has a special place for many of today’s top drivers.

Phoenix is part of the maturation process in motor sports and where some drivers learned to race. As we get further away from NASCAR being just a "Southern thing" and more into being a fun sport that children from all over can aspire, we start to realize quite a few drivers are growing up west of the Mississippi.

If a question were to be posed 10 years ago asking what state had more regular Cup drivers, North Carolina or California, the answer would have been simple. In today’s NASCAR, California is the leader. Staples of NASCAR statehood like Virginia are now being caught by the likes of Washington state and Nevada as the leaders in producing circuit drivers.

P.I.R. has been running consecutively in the Cup series since 1988. It is a unique configuration, a welcome sight in this age of diluted dull tracks. Last season, Phoenix had its first year with two Cup dates, and rightfully so.

As more new drivers come up through the ranks, we start to see these newer tracks from the recent past now older than the drivers. P.I.R. has been around for a short time but there from the start for many drivers in various USAC Sprint car events. Drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, and J.J. Yeley made names for themselves at P.I.R. before NASCAR entered their minds.

For others, NASCAR was always on their mind and they traveled up the ladder to the top. Phoenix was a stop for those driving anything from modifieds, pro stock, to Legends. Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Ron Hornaday, Carl Edwards, Kurt, and Kyle Busch all made pit stops in Phoenix. Quite a lengthy list of top name drivers.

Kasey Kahne may be the sport’s hottest name now. Kahne has led the Dodge charge with two of the three wins they have this season. The three victories by Dodge equals all of last season. Currently, Dodge trails in the Manufacturers Championship race by two points.

Kahne isn’t only winning the hearts of Dodge and fans across the country, but he’s also gaining a tremendous amount of respect from his peers in the garages.

"He’s a talented kid," said Stewart, who finished second when Kahne won his first series race last May at Richmond and was third last week in Texas. "He’s one of those guys that when you explain something to him, he does a lot more listening than talking, and that’s hard to find with guys that are really competitive."

Another young driver, Las Vegan Kyle Busch, has received the opposite treatment from Stewart. Busch has been in Stewart’s doghouse for his first two Cup seasons and can’t seem to catch a break from him, now one of the elder statesmen of the sport. Busch won the fall Phoenix race last season in what became a bit of irony due to brother Kurt suspended for the final two races by Roush Racing for reckless driving. Kurt had won the spring race at Phoenix.

In yet another piece of irony, Kyle got pulled over last week in Richmond while testing for reckless driving. Alcohol and speeding weren’t cited as reasons for the ticket. This will go a long way in developing the brother’s image to NASCAR Nation.

Kyle Busch has a 4.5 average finish in his two races at PIR, the best of all drivers. He has a knack for the track and his Hendrick Motor Sports team also has an edge.

Teammate Jeff Gordon has the best average finish among all drivers with more than two starts. However, Phoenix remains one of the few tracks Gordon has not tasted victory (0-for-14). Gordon is also 0 for 11 at Texas, 0 for 5 at Chicagoland, and 0 for 6 at Miami. Gordon has won on 20 of the 24 Cup tracks. Two of them, Rockingham and North Wilkesboro, are no longer on the circuit.

Jimmie Johnson has never won at Phoenix either, but does have a second place finish and has placed no worse than fifteenth in five races.

Kurt Busch has four straight top 10’s, longest such Phoenix streak in the series. Had he raced in the fall race, he would have surely been in the top five. Busch swept the 2004 season at New Hampshire with a dominant car, the same one used at Phoenix last spring. The two tracks are very similar in set up requirements and teams often take the same cars to each if successful.

Obviously, things are different for Busch this year since he’s driving the Miller Lite Dodge, and not the Roush machine. Busch likes the track and will run decent, but don’t expect too much from him this year on any track other than short tracks.

The team Busch used to drive for just had a major shakeup. Jamie McMurray and the former Kurt Busch team have been terrible and the Cat in the Hat had seen enough. Roush changed crew chiefs for both McMurray and Carl Edwards in attempt to salvage something for each in 2006. Edwards should be okay, but it could possibly be a long year for McMurray.

Greg Biffle has been just as bad as his teammate Carl Edwards this year. Biffle led the most laps in the fall race last season but couldn’t get past Kyle Busch down the stretch and settled for second. Some have said Biffle is just running his car into the ground too quick and not saving anything for late. He gets out to these huge leads and dominates for the early stages and then nothing is left. This is in complete contrast to what they did last season when he was able to finish.

Mark Martin posted his only Phoenix win back in 1993. Martin is one of only three active drivers (Jarrett, Schrader) to have raced in every Phoenix Cup race. Martin has 13 top 10 finishes, more than any other driver at Phoenix.

Three of the last four Phoenix races have been won by a Chevrolet, led by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior, who also won in 2003 and 2004 will be a factor again and expected to have a top five finish.

Kevin Harvick is also racing well. He has climbed the standings over the past three races, moving from 23 to 9. Harvick’s fifth-place showing at Texas marked a third straight top-10 finish. Look for both Harvick and teammate Jeff Burton to have strong races.

Jeff Burton joins Dale Jr and Davey Allison as the only back to back winners in Phoenix history. When Burton was driving for Roush Racing, he won a race each year at New Hampshire from 1997 to 2000. He has won Phoenix twice.

The Phoenix-New Hampshire correlation is strong. Both are mile tracks with slight banking. The configuration of each is different, but required set ups for cars are the same. Drivers with success at both tracks are Stewart, Ryan Newman, Johnson, and Matt Kenseth.

Amazingly at Phoenix, no driver has ever won from the pole. Kasey Kahne who just won his second race of the season, and third of his career, has won all three of his career Cup races from the pole. Four of the last 5 Phoenix winners have been won from outside the top 10 starting position.

We’re going to key on Tony Stewart this week. He finished first and second last year at New Hampshire and fourth at Phoenix last fall. His last win at P.I.R. was his rookie year of 1999. He has the most diverse experience going from USAC, to the Indy Racing League, to NASCAR. Stewart also owns the best car set up for this track, the one Kurt Busch drove.