Saturday, February 26, 2011

No Two-Car Tandems This Week at Phoenix, Drivers Now Control Their Own Destiny

By Micah Roberts

Drivers get to use their brakes just a little bit more this week at Phoenix
Even though Daytona began the season last week, it could be argued that this weeks race at Phoenix is the real beginning to the season. Restrictor-plate racing only has four races a year and in those races, anything can, and usually does happen. The other races have more to do about the set-up of the car, engine, individual driver and who can be consistent in those races over that stretch.

The points count the same for all races, but there’s just more of these type of races to make it a major priority for most teams. You can have a poor race at Daytona and not be concerned, but to run poorly at Phoenix, and then Las Vegas next week, that will sound the alarms.

For some of the drivers, they just simply like being able to race on their own for the first time.

“That style of racing (Daytona) we only have four times a year," said Carl Edwards, winner of the last Phoenix race. "The other 32 times they are races like this, so this really is the style of track that you need to be good at and this is the start of the season that you can control more. That race on Sunday, that’s a tough one. That’s a tough one to be in control of your own destiny and your own fate.”

Tony Stewart is also ready to control his own desitny heading into Sunday's race.

"Daytona is a restrictor-plate race and, unlike Daytona, four guys can’t get in a line at Phoenix and go to the front", said Stewart. "Daytona and Talladega have always just been two different forms of racing. With the draft being so important at those two tracks, it’s more of a team deal than an individual deal. What happens at Phoenix and the races after that has to be done on your own. You can’t help each other at Phoenix. You just have to go race.”

Bayne wrecked his primary car early in Friday's practice
After watching Friday’s two practice sessions, it was no surprise we didn't see the names of Trevor Bayne, David Gilliland and Bobby Labonte -- top four finishers last week in the Daytona 500 -- anywhere near the top of the charts. Unlike last weeks race, there is no freakish two-car draft that can be the great equalizer. This week, It will be all about the top teams battling it out for the win.

Only two practice sessions were run leading up to qualifying. Of the two, the first practice should be used as the best barometer because most of the teams were running in race trim. The three known exceptions who used a qualifying set-up in the first practice were Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Jeff Burton.

The driver who looked the best during that first practice was Kevin Harvick who had the fastest average speeds and fourth fastest single lap overall. Seeing Harvick do well at Phoenix shouldn’t be that big of a surprise because he finished 13th or better last year in the six flat mid-range races at Phoenix, New Hampshire and Richmond. Kyle Busch was the only driver to match Harvick’s feat last season.

In 2006 Harvick won four of those six races, including a sweep of Phoenix. There is some uncertainty because he’s using a brand new chassis, but it appears that all the successful notes from last year transferred well into the new car. Following the practices, Harvick Tweeted that his Cup car was “really, really fast in race trim.”

He's not just blowing smoke either, his car is really fast and likely the one to beat Sunday.

Denny Hamlin had the second fastest times during the first practice and third fastest single lap. He is currently the favorite to win the race and it’s easy to see why on paper. Last year coming into the fall Phoenix race, he had been on a roll at tracks like this having won at Richmond and then runner-up at New Hampshire. He led the most laps at the ensuing Phoenix race but finished 12th because of some late miscalculations on fuel mileage. Overall, Hamlin has four third-place finishes at Phoenix and has an average finish of 9.8 in the eight COT races.

Edwards hopes everyone is in his mirror come checkered flag time 
During last years fall practices, Edwards blew everyone away and looked like the easy choice to win. He was first in every practice, sat on the pole and then won the race. Edwards is on the pole again this week, but his practices weren't near as good. He was much faster in qualifying trim than in a race set-up. He's debuting a new chassis this week.

Kyle Busch came out with the fastest lap in the final practice while in qualifying trim. During the early session, Busch was fifth fastest, but had the fastest 10 consecutive-lap average of the session meaning that he should be one of the best on the track in short runs.

Ryan Newman was excellent on the short run last season in this race when he beat Jeff Gordon off the line in the green-white-checker finish. In the fall, Newman came back with a runner-up finish to give him top-11 finishes in five of the six races on similar tracks. He didn’t do anything spectacular in practice, but he didn’t in either of his Phoenix practices last year. This week, he’s using the same chassis from both those Phoenix races.

A couple of long shots to take a look at begin with Kasey Kahne who had good average speed times and was the fastest for 10 consecutive laps in race trim during the final practice. David Ragan was right behind Kahne in the final practice on 10-lap speeds and was second quickest overall.

The was one initial surprise of the practice and qualifying sessions was a sluggish Jimmie Johnson. He finished 14th and 21st in practice, but before we get too worked thinking Jimmie may be sliding, we need to look back at his practices from the fall where they were worse than Friday’s. In that race, Johnson finished fifth. Over his career at Phoenix, no one has been better than Johnson’s 4.9 average finish in 15 starts. It’s his best track statistically.

Kurt Busch was fastest in the first session which got me kind of excited about his prospects, but I later found out he was in qualifying trim. He came back with only the 39th best lap in final practice.
Busch finished ninth in the fall last year and won at Phoenix in 2005.

Top 10 Phoenix Driver Ratings Following All Practice and Qualifying Sessions

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