After a week off, the NASCAR Cup Series heads West for the fourth time in eight races thus far in the 2009 campaign.
The series went to California, Las Vegas, Texas and now Phoenix. This definitely is the new era of NASCAR. However, unlike the three newer facilities out West, Phoenix holds its own in racing history with any track currently on the schedule.
The track was built next to the beautiful Estrella Mountains outside of Phoenix in 1964 and used primarily for open-wheel racing. In 1988 NASCAR made its debut on the odd shaped flat one mile track. Since then, it’s two NASCAR dates and no longer the Indy car circuit.
This week’s race should be a full house of over 100,000 with excess fans watching on monument hill right next to the track. The race starts at 5:40 p.m. (PST) this Saturday, so expect to see a gorgeous desert sunset and drivers developing a little late night road rage as the lights come on.
The last two seasons of Phoenix races have been all Hendrick Motorsports. Jeff Gordon won this race in 2007 and then Jimmie Johnson took over. Johnson has won the last three, a feat unmatched by anyone else in track history. In fact, the Phoenix 3-peat makes him the track’s all-time leader in wins.
The Gordon win in 2007 knocked Phoenix off Gordon’s "tracks to win at list." The only one left now is Homestead following Gordon’s win at Texas two weeks ago. Should he win at Homestead in the season finale, he would join Richard Petty, David Pearson, and Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to be victorious at every track on a given schedule.
Gordon’s large 162 point lead in the standings may be decreased some because of Johnson’s runnerup position and recent dominance. Gordon is no slouch either just because it took him so long to win at Phoenix. In 20 career starts, he has 15 top 10 finishes. Last season Gordon had perhaps his worst consecutive Phoenix runs with a 13th and 41st.
Gordon’s team has drastically changed from last year. He wasn’t even in the top 12 in points at this juncture in 2008 and is the top candidate to topple Jimmie, the Phoenix Sun King.
Four of the top five current leaders in points are past winners at Phoenix, which should shape this week’s race as a battle of heavyweights. We have Johnson and Gordon of course, but sitting third is Kurt Busch and surprisingly fifth is Tony Stewart. Clint Bowyer, now fourth, finished second in this race last year.
Denny Hamlin, sitting sixth, finished third and fourth last year and may be the best candidate to beat both Johnson and Gordon this week. In the 7 hole is Kyle Busch, who had two top 10 finishes last year and won Phoenix in the fall of 2005 while driving for Hendrick. That was the year his brother Kurt won in the spring and moved to Penske Racing.
Kurt got in some trouble with the law the weekend of the Phoenix race and Jack Roush suspended him, more a tribute to Kurt leaving than his actual law troubles.
Back to the countdown. The driver sitting in eighth is Carl Edwards, who finished fourth in both races there last season. Matt Kenseth, nestled in ninth, won in 2002 and has four other top 5 finishes.
In 12th and 14th respectively are the Childress teammates Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick. Each has two wins at Phoenix, with Harvick’s coming in 2006 when he swept the season. All three Childress drivers, including Clint Bowyer, present the best long shot chances of winning. Bowyer and Harvick are in the 20-1 range. Burton can be had around 30-1.
The biggest mover in points the last few weeks has been Dale Earnhardt Jr, much to the delight of the Junior Nation. Junior is a two-time winner at Phoenix, but more importantly he’s from Hendrick Motorsports where owner Rick Hendrick has obviously stepped in and given them more to work.
Junior is still looking for his first top 5 finish of the season and this could be it. He is a long shot at 22-1, but could be a good play in matchups getting plus money.
Enjoy the race and the sunset, but beware of the coyotes, gila monsters and the rattle snakes which are just beginning to come out from under their rocks after a long winter.