Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Phoenix Storylines: Kobalt Tools 500

Three points separate two drivers, points leader Carl Edwards and second-place Tony Stewart. Two races remain before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion is crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

That all equals one storyline-rich stretch run.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship contenders roll to the penultimate race of the season, at newly repaved Phoenix International Raceway for the Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. holds onto a 17-point lead over Elliott Sadler, the only other driver mathematically eligible for the NASCAR Nationwide Series title going into Saturday’s WYPALL 200 at Phoenix.

Austin Dillon nears his first national series championship, needing only a 16th-place finish at Homestead to win the title. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has an open week this weekend.

Stewart Talks Talk, Walks Walk
After his win at Martinsville, Tony Stewart suggested that Carl Edwards forego sleep – he was coming for the points leader.

Brash words, indeed. And Stewart, a two-time champion, backed them up.

Tony Stewart won again, this time at Texas, trimming his deficit to Edwards to three points. An interesting side note: They’ve both scored the exact same number of points in the Chase: 313. Edwards owns his miniscule advantage because of the three bonus points he earned for winning a race in the regular season.

Some other notables from Stewart's win at Texas…

- This is his fourth win of this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Only one other driver has ever won four races in the Chase: Jimmie Johnson, in 2004, 2007, 2009 (Johnson won the title in 2007 and 2009). No driver has won five races in the Chase. Stewart has a solid chance of becoming the first – he turned the fastest lap at last month’s test at Phoenix.
- If Stewart wins the championship this year, he’ll join NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough, Lee Petty, Darrell Waltrip and David Pearson, the other NASCAR legends with three titles.

Though no driver has experience racing on the new Phoenix surface, Stewart may have turned more laps than anyone at the one-mile track. Stewart is one of the few drivers who participated in both the two-day test in October and the Goodyear Tire Test in August. Carl Edwards also ran both tests.

I Won’t Back Down: Carl Edwards Up To Challenge
Edwards had the best car in spring, but found trouble
Carl Edwards won’t be intimidated.

Edwards took Stewart's words, and used them as inspiration, finishing second and holding on to the points lead with two races to go.

A couple worry spots, though. His three-point advantage roughly equates to 13 points in the old system. That would be the closest margin between first and second in Chase history.

Second, the circumstances of this season give it a similar feel to last year. Last year, Denny Hamlin, going for his first championship, was leading Jimmie Johnson, who owned multiple titles. This year, Carl Edwards, going for his first championship, is leading Tony Stewart, who owns multiple titles. Hamlin squandered a 33-point lead, and Johnson won his fifth title.

Johnson Just About Done
This just isn’t Jimmie Johnson’s Chase. He finished 14th at Texas, his third finish outside the top 10 in the last four races, and fourth finish outside the top 10 overall in the Chase. That matches the total finishes outside the top 10 in the 2008, 2009 and 2010 Chases combined (he had two finishes outside the top 10 in the 2008 Chase, and one each in 2009 and 2010.

He’s now 6th in points, 55 points out of the lead. He leads all drivers in wins at Phoenix, with four – but that was all on the old surface.

What To Watch For: How To Analyze New Phoenix, The New Wild Card Track
This is a tough one. After last month’s two-day test session at the newly repaved Phoenix International Raceway, drivers offered a number of reviews of the surface and new configuration. The consensus: It’s vastly different from the "old" layout. And there wasn’t much of a comparison to other tracks. In other words, who knows. It’ll be interesting

A few insights…

Carl Edwards: "It’s hard to say. I would say this first trip to Phoenix it will be more of a crew chief/engineer race. You’re gonna have to really pay attention to tire wear. The setup is going to be hugely important. The track is very smooth, very easy to drive. I don’t know that you’ll be able to go there and manhandle the car and hustle it around there like you could the old Phoenix – not this first time."

Denny Hamlin: "I think it will be a fun race track. Driving it was like wow, this is a lot different than any other course we’ve ever kind of been on before with the elevation changes and things like that."

Kevin Harvick: "I think there are a lot of unknowns with the repave and the things that have the potential to happen. I look at Phoenix a lot like Martinsville. The Roush cars didn’t run very well there and we have to run well there. So we’re looking forward to it.

"It’s definitely unique. (Turns) three and four is definitely not like it was but it is similar to what it was with the new asphalt as far as the radius of the corner. The exit of turn two is a lot different and the back straightaway is definitely different. They did a good job by designing the track so the fans can see the cars

Jeff Gordon: "The way I look at it is three and four really did not change a whole lot, other than the surface and the tires. It is going to be tricky conditions. Turns one and two has changed quite a bit, as you exit turn two. The back straightaway is completely different, there is definitely no comparison to what goes on back there to any other track. It is going to be challenging, there is no doubt about it."

- NASCAR Media Services

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