Mash The Gas: Phoenix Preview

Action during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway. [Credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images]


by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

Leaving Las Vegas, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series travels down the road to Phoenix, Arizona for the 500 this Sunday afternoon at the Phoenix International Raceway. 500
Phoenix International Raceway
312 miles (312 laps)
Sunday, March 15 3:30pm ET
FOX, 3 pm ET
MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
The 500 is the second leg of the series’ West Coast swing and it presents the first look the teams will have at a “flat” track with the 2015 rules package. Unlike the superspeedway and 1.5 mile tri-ovals the Sprint Cup drivers have competed on already this season, the Phoenix track features minimal banking and a “dog leg” straightaway and getting the right balance in the car will be a main key to success.

Certain drivers stand out and seem to excel on the flat tracks and here a few to watch on Sunday in the 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway…


Kevin Harvick (Dan Margetta)

There is no such thing as a “lock” in NASCAR racing, but Kevin Harvick at Phoenix is about as close as one can get to a sure thing. Harvick has six wins here including the last three races and four out of the last five so he is by far the driver to beat this weekend. Plus he’s coming off a Vegas victory and looking back into the end of last season, his #4 team has finished first or second in six races in a row. Currently a 3-1 heavy favorite to win this weekend, Kevin Harvick has seemed to adapt perfectly to the Phoenix International Raceway and barring any self-inflicted mistakes should be the first repeat winner of the 2015 season.

Jimmie Johnson (John Wiedemann)

Four time Phoenix winner should be one to watch to see if he can be the one to hold off Kevin Harvick. Those four wins were from a while ago. In a span of five races between the fall race in 2007 through the fall race of 2009, Johnson picked up those four wins along with a fourth place run. Since 2006 Johnson has not finished in the top five only four times, and one of those was a sixth place run. But, in 23 races at Phoenix Johnson has an average finish of 7.7, far better than his competitors. Add a series leading driver rating, fastest laps run, average green flag speed and laps in the top 15 = Johnson will be a threat this weekend.

Brad Keselowski (DM)

While Brad Keselowski has yet to win at Phoenix, this weekend seems like a great opportunity for the 2012 series champion to break out of what has been a somewhat quiet start to 2015. Keselowski does have five top ten finishes here and does have victories at similar flat tracks like New Hampshire and Richmond. Penske teammate Joey Logano has gotten all the glory so far this year and while Keselowski’s #2 team has run well, the finishes haven’t matched their on track performance. Entering the Phoenix weekend at 7-1 odds, which is low for a driver yet to win at a track, the lines makers obviously also feel confident Keselowski is due for a breakout weekend at Phoenix.

Carl Edwards (JW)

In twenty-one races at Phoenix Carl Edwards has two wins, three pole runs, seven top five and twelve top 10 finishes. Edwards last win in the desert was the spring race two years ago in 2013. This could be the breakout race for Edwards and his new Joe Gibbs Racing team.  Edwards needs a good run after last week’s debacle at Las Vegas. Edward’s new teammates have done well in Phoenix and their book on the track along with Carl’s success there in the past bodes well for the driver of the #19. Edwards needs a strong finish and even more so a win. Currently 23rd in the points after his 42nd place finish at Las Vegas, Edwards needs to start climbing back to the top. Phoenix is the track for him to start his ascent.

Denny Hamlin (DM)

At one time Denny Hamlin was the king of the flat tracks on the circuit and while the performance has tapered a bit, last Fall’s race at Phoenix proved he can still get the job done out in the desert as he finished fifth and made the Chase final four. Hamlin has a Phoenix victory to his credit in 2012 to go along with nine top five finishes and ten top ten results. His 12-1 odds are a little high for a driver who has had that kind of success at a track, perhaps due to it being his first time here with 2015 crew chief Dave Rogers. How well the two communicate could dictate the #11 team’s fate this weekend as both bring strong credentials to Phoenix and if they can remain on the same page regarding setting up the car, Hamlin could very well hoist the trophy in victory lane this weekend.

Jeff Gordon (JW)

Another driver who needs something to go right is Jeff Gordon. Gordon is 30th in the standings after the first three races. With two poles to his credit, the start of the races are good for the retiring champion, it’s just ending them successfully is where the problem lies. Gordon’s best finish so far is his 18th place run last week at Las Vegas.   Phoenix hasn’t always been kind to Gordon, but he finished fifth and second in the two races last season. Gordon has two wins and three poles at the track to go along with an average finish of 11th. Count Gordon as one of the drivers that will be in contention all day long at the flat track. Will he be in the mix at the end? We’ll have to see.

Kurt Busch (DM)

Kurt Busch is back this weekend at Phoenix but the “Outlaw” moniker that has followed him the past few seasons is gone. Busch was reinstated by NASCAR after being suspended prior to the Daytona 500 following domestic violence allegations and he will compete this weekend with a waiver allowing him to make the Chase despite missing three starts. Busch’s record at Phoenix is respectable with one victory and ten top ten finishes and his only win since 2011 came at the “flat” track in Martinsville. He comes into Phoenix as part of the “Field” bet which opened at 200-1 before falling to 40-1 after Busch’s return was announced. Paired with old school crew chief Tony Gibson toward the end of last season, Kurt Busch and his pure racer attitude could be the right combination to produce a triumphant return with a victory on Sunday.

Martin Truex Jr (JW)

He shouldn’t be a surprise to be in the top ten in the standings, but after last season’s results it is good to see Martin Truex Jr. positioned fourth in the standings. Last season was a rough start for Truex and the Furniture Row Racing team. Truex was a quick pickup for the team after he was jettisoned from Michael Waltrip Racing and nothing really worked for them until the season was almost over. A 180 degree turn around is the case this season as Truex just scored a runner-up finish last week at Las Vegas to go along with the top tens he has finished in every Cup race this season including the Unlimeted and Duel at Daytona. Truex finished 12th in the fall Phoenix race last season and I would expect a solid top five and not be surprised to see him find victory lane. What a comeback story that would be.



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