Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Phoenix Preview: Hendrick Cars Should Have the Edge

By Micah Roberts

Johnson has four Phoenix wins and the No. 5 has two recent wins (Getty)
For the next few weeks we're going to all be learning about what the changes to the the NASCAR Sprint Cup cars mean at differing tracks, most notably how the new electronic fuel injection reacts. The teams that have done the most extensive testing since it was allowed last season would appear to have an edge. Those teams, not surprisingly, are the ones with the most money, such as Hendrick Motorsports.

Last week's restrictor-plate race at Daytona didn't offer the best data with the new EFI system because cars are propelled more by the draft than by themselves. This week at Phoenix it will be every driver for themselves with their crew chief at the computer dissecting every piece of data that comes through their computer in nearly the same fashion they do in Formula-one.

Instead of a crew chief asking their driver "what's wrong" with a driver speculating, the crew chief will now be able to know and pinpoint issues quicker. These next few races will be important for every team to figure out how they're going maximize all that data to their advantage.

Some of the expected bonuses of EFI is less blown engines and a more accurate figure on fuel mileage. Some of the drama of wondering whether a car can make the final few laps will be taken out of the equation, but will also intensify at the same time as teams are sure to push the limits more so than in the past. Is the computer smarter here, or weighing a gas can after each pit stop to see exactly how much fuel got into the car?

Even without speculating that Hendrick may have the advantage here like they did in 2007 when the 'Car of Tomorrow' was introduced, they are collectively pretty stout at Phoenix as is.

Jimmie Johnson has a track best career average of 5.4 in 17 starts that include four wins. He's never finished worse than 15th and has only finished worse than seventh 3 times. Johnson has had a lot of time reflect on not winning his sixth straight title last season and when looking back on 2011, Phoenix is the type of track he knows he can improve upon from last year.

Jeff Gordon is a two-time winner at Phoenix. Unlike most of the other tracks where he did most of his damage during his glory years in the 90's, he captured his only two wins on the track in 2007 and in this race last season.

Kasey Kahne gets to jump into the No. 5 Hendrick car that Mark Martin drove to a Phoenix victory in 2009, a car Kyle Busch also won at Phoenix with in 2005. Kahne looks to be one of the surprises of the 2012 season and this will be our first real opportunity to see what he can do with the Hendrick horsepower under the hood. In the fall race last season, Kahne did the amazing by taking a lame duck Red Bull Racing team to the winners circle. It was Kahne's only win of 2012.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has gone 130 races without a win, but Phoenix could be a place we see the streak end. He's a two-time winner on the track (2003-04) and be the major beneficiary of having the Hendrick edge in his corner.

The top Ford of the race figures to be Carl Edwards who has had the best car in the last three Phoenix races, but has claimed only one victory. The last time NASCAR made some changes, Roush Racing took a long time to catch up. It's debatable whether it will happen again, but it does take some of the shine off of what Edwards has done recently at Phoenix. It's likely odds on Edwards will too low to back as most sports books will use those last three races as a reference when posting their numbers.

Top 5 Finish Position:
1) #48 Jimmie Johnson (7/1)
2) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
3) #99 Carl Edwards (7/1)
4) #5 Kasey Kahne (14/1)
5) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (25/1)

Gaughan to a GREAT Car
While Danica Patrick won't make a Sprint Cup appearance again until May, Las Vegans will make up for the void with their own favorite son, Brendan Gaughan, who will run race No. 2, 3, 4 and 5 beginning this week in Phoenix. Kurt and Kyle Busch are loved in Las Vegas as well, but Brendan has a special relationship with the locals because of his family ties (Father Michael and Grandfather Jackie) that have been so good to Las Vegans over the last six decades.

When Brendan got his first shot at Cup racing, he didn't really have a chance to succeed as an afterthought third-string program run by Roger Penske during lean years. His current run will see him in Richard Childress cars with chassis' leftovers from the departure of Clint Bowyer as well as a cars used by Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick.

His return to the Cup series during the Las Vegas race in two weeks will be one of the bigger underlying stories of the weekend. Here's to hoping, and wishing, Gaughan the best of performances the next few weeks in the spotlight of Cup racing.

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