We’re racing to Phoenix
for huge weekend

Oct 28, 2003 6:05 AM

This week in Phoenix could be deemed as the ultimate sports vacation for any serious group of sports fans.

The sporting adventure started Monday with the free Monday night football game at Sun Devil Stadium, carries over to LeBron James against the Suns Thursday. Then Friday, Brendan Gaughan and the Craftsman Truck series race in a championship chase. Saturday, take your pick.

You can go to the Busch series race in another championship race or go to the Cal-ASU college football game set for the same time. At night, it’s back to the arena for the Lakers-Suns. Sunday, the week culminates with the choice of seeing the upstart Bengals and Cardinals or checking out the NASCAR Winston Cup series.

Of all the great events going on in Phoenix this week, guess what events will have the highest attendance and what event will have the biggest demand for tickets? NASCAR will rule the weekend, but the variety of events in Phoenix this week may be the biggest sporting stage of the year for any city all year. It’s a very impressive lineup and very surprising considering Phoenix isn’t much larger than Las Vegas.

Phoenix International Raceway is a great one-mile track set in the Sonoran desert overlooking the beautiful Estrella Mountains. Its unique layout is unlike any other on the circuit and therefore makes it tough to compare it to any other from a handicapping standpoint. The favorites coming in are naturally the drivers who are plain and simply the fastest week in and week out. Ryan Newman (7-1) leads the charge followed by Tony Stewart (8-1), and a few Roush racing drivers.

Because NASCAR allows for only a limited testing schedule on the season, most teams do their testing at tracks where the information gained can apply to multiple tracks. Phoenix is always very low on the list and not many teams spend a test date on a Cup track. A few weeks ago, a couple of teams made the trip and one driver that was a surprise to see was Jeff Gordon (8-1).

Phoenix is the only track where Gordon has been unable to post a Winston Cup win. He captured a Busch race there a few years ago, but the best he’s been able to do on Sundays has been a third. He has eight top 10 finishes in 10 Phoenix starts, but for him, this lack of conquering a track is an irritant. For him to bypass a normal test session at another track to come to Phoenix says it all. Gordon wants a Phoenix trophy on his mantle, and will do anything it takes to get an edge there.

The only drivers with multiple wins at Phoenix are the late Davey Allison and Roush Racing’s Jeff Burton (12-1). Both instances occurred in back to back occasions. Roush also won last year with Matt Kenseth (12-1) making it three straight wins at Phoenix for the "cat in the hat."

In all, Roush has claimed four wins at Phoenix with Mark Martin (22-1) claiming the other victory. Look for all the Roush drivers to be competitive this week including Greg Biffle (35-1) and Kurt Busch (9-1).

Stewart has only four-cup races under his belt at Phoenix, but claims a win from his rookie year there and another top 5. Beyond those four stock car races, Stewart might have more time on the track than anyone else because of his open-wheel racing days in USAC and the IRL. Stewart has been one of the hottest drivers NASCAR over the last two months and will use his experience at Phoenix to continue that streak.

Kevin Harvick (12-1) will be doing the triple duty this weekend driving in the Trucks, Busch, and Cup races. He is the defending champion in the truck race and has raced at Phoenix throughout his entire racing career at Phoenix. His Cup performances haven’t been that great, but he did come out for a test session along with Gordon and the notes should be beneficial.

Rusty Wallace (18-1) has raced in every Phoenix Cup race claiming one victory in ”˜98. Last season he had a very impressive second place finish. His teammate, Ryan Newman, is the favorite, but hasn’t done anything at Phoenix to justify it other than just be fast and win almost every race in sight. His Phoenix career has been a disaster in his only two starts. In his 2001 debut while driving a limited schedule, he finished 40th. Last year he started from the pole a finished 18th. On an upside, the Penske No. 12 car was driven to a second place finish in the ”˜01 race by substitute driver Mike Wallace.

Gaughan watch on

The NASCAR Craftsman Truck series race at Phoenix will be a great opportunity for Las Vegan Brendan Gaughan (5-1) to widen his 45-point lead in the championship chase. Only two races remain, with Miami in two weeks set to determine it all. Phoenix gives Travis Kvapil (7-1), who is second in points, the edge because of his past success there.

Kvapil finished fourth last year, but the team he drives for now finished tenth in the race. Gaughan finished 13th last year and as evidenced by his performances this year, he likes the bigger tracks. However, Phoenix should be good for him this week. He has Winston West experience there. Station Casinos has a weekly matchup with Gaughan and Kvapil as to which driver finishes higher. This week, Gaughan is a -140 favorite.