By Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal
Each of those stages will be critical for every team involved because the surface and temperature of the track will change drastically. The crews for each team will have to slowly make the transition from day to night racing a little bit at each pit stop with the combined goal of having the optimum setup for the final stages of racing at night and finishing strong.
Phoenix International Raceway changed the length of its race from 500 kilometers to 600 because of the earlier NASCAR-mandated start time, which would have had the race ending just as twilight hit. The difference equates to about 63 laps, but also ensures that the spring Phoenix race remains unique because of the day/night changes.
The two sessions Saturday are critical for handicappers, bookmakers and fantasy players to get the best read on who the drivers to beat will be. This week in Phoenix, we have a jumbled mess because everyone was trying many different things to prepare for the different expected conditions on Saturday.
Following Friday’s qualifying session, the teams will not get any other practice time and will have to do their final tinkering as the race goes on.
More so than with other races to determine who might win, we have to look at recent past history of a driver’s performance at not only Phoenix, but Richmond and New Hampshire as well. While none of those three tracks are similar on paper, they all have relatively flat banking and are a mile or less in distance. Crew chiefs who have had success on one of the three tracks often will bring the same chassis to the other two because the setup requirements are similar.
The practices are still important and critical to the calculations, but because it was a much different kind of practice this week, it doesn’t hold as true as with other tracks. So this week, we’ll place a lot of emphasis on what chassis certain drivers have brought for the race, mixed in with some notes about practice.
Denny Hamlin is an interesting candidate to win because he’s on the injured list. Following his Martinsville win two weeks ago, Hamlin had surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee. He has Casey Mears on standby just in case he can’t go the distance because of the pain.
All indications show that it will be tough to get Hamlin to get out of the car while the race is going, especially if he’s having a good run. He’s a competitor, the team finally ran well with their win at Martinsville, and he’ll want to keep the momentum going as much as he can.
Tony Stewart hasn’t been talked about too much this season, but has managed to quietly put himself eighth in points. He brought his second-place Phoenix chassis from this race last year which, coupled with a great practice on Friday, makes him a solid contender to get his first Phoenix win since his rookie year of 1999.
Along the same lines as Stewart is his teammate Ryan Newman who brought his same chassis that ran at both Phoenix and Richmond races last season. He finished in the top-10 of both Richmond races. During the final stages of practice, Newman reeled off the third-fastest lap while in qualifying trim.
Mark Martin should be considered a candidate just because he won this race last season. He practiced well Friday, but the car he’s using is new which always leaves some uncertainty to its capabilities because it has no track record. Jimmie Johnson has proven this year that a new car can win a race, but Johnson is in an entirely different class.
Greg Biffle is a nice candidate to run well this week just because he runs well every week. He’s the only driver this season to have finished the first six races within the top 10. Biffle had a strong practice with the fourth-fastest single lap and has done well at Phoenix in all series in the past. His most recent success was a fifth-place finish in this race last year.
Drivers that could surprise this week include Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt Jr. McMurray had a great first practice but couldn’t get any speed with qualifying trim on. Joey Logano was smooth for the entire day Friday, and Earnhardt Jr, a two-time Phoenix winner, had a good first practice.
Don’t put too much into start position for this race, even though it has proved very critical the last four races. Only 10 of the 27 Phoenix races have been won from a top-five starting position with only four more getting wins while starting among the top 10. However, the last four races have been won from a top-five starting position. Based on this week's lineup, it doesn’t appear anyone of the top nine starters can win.
Tony Stewart on what makes the Phoenix track so slick:
“It is just Phoenix. But that is what makes it fun, too; it makes us work as drivers. You have got to not overdrive your car. It is very sensitive to heat and that makes us as drivers have to work harder.”
Jeff Gordon on how his Friday Phoenix practice and qualifying sessions went:
"Under the conditions, I am pretty happy our team had a very impressive day. We started the day really far off, so we tried a few new things and experimented since we’re early in the season. It’s hard to do that when we have all our practices in just one day. I’m really proud of my guys; they didn’t give up and we made big gains certainly for qualifying as well. We’ll see what happens tomorrow night in the race."
For Roberts Top 10 Driver Ratings, click here.....