As the season draws to a close, the Chase for the Sprint Cup brings us to Phoenix, Arizona and Phoenix International Raceway for the prelude to the championship finale. This race marks the cut from the 8-driver Eliminator round of the Chase to the 4-driver Championship 4 round at Homestead. We make a big departure from the 1.5-mile intermediate ovals and come to one of the few flat tracks on the circuit. PIR is an irregular "D-shaped" oval with very flat banking in the corners of nine to 11 degrees. The straights are completely flat, and very fast as they carry off into the sweeping corners. It is truly a unique facility among those on the Sprint Cup circuit, and very fitting that it plays a key role in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Phoenix is not a rhythm track like some of the cookie cutter ovals that we have raced recently. Its unusual configuration will test the concentration and nerve of the drivers as they complete 312 circuits on this flat oval. Since Phoenix International Raceway is so unique, we have a driver set for this race that is unique as well. Certain drivers thrive on the flat oval in the Arizona desert, while some others would rather be just about anywhere else this weekend but Phoenix. However, one theme will be quite clear. Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick will be driving over each other to get ahead in the championship chase. As a quick glance at the standings shows us, the Sprint Cup championship is still up for grabs coming into the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500. With the wrecks and other mayhem of Texas still fresh in our memory, all eyes will be on the Arizona desert this weekend. As pressure builds, and frustration boils over, we're sure to see some fireworks on and potentially off the race track.
For the first time since March, we're racing at PIR. It was almost eight months ago that the Sprint Cup Series ran in the mid-afternoon in the Arizona desert. Even though it has been a long time since drivers made laps at Phoenix, we can still look at the results from the Campingworld.com 500 for indicators for this weekend. Not only that race, but we'll factor in the last 10 seasons at PIR for some ideas of who will run up front this weekend. Current hot streaks will play a part as well in evaluating this weekend's race, but historical stats at this facility are a very valuable tool. Here are the loop stats for the last 21 races at Phoenix International Raceway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||17.8||352||202||203||3,278||85.6|
|Martin Truex Jr.||17.1||414||165||101||3,602||84.3|
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If anyone hopes to pull a surprise upset in the quest for the championship, Phoenix will play a big part. One Chevrolet driver has won the last four-straight races at the desert short track, and that would be the driver of the Stewart Haas Racing No. 4. So you could say that this weekend sets up pretty well for Kevin Harvick in his quest to regain the championship. The Stewart Haas Racing star has won the last four Phoenix events, and seven total at this facility. Before we hand the trophy to Harvick, let's not rule out Joey Logano just yet. His back is to the wall and facing Chase elimination at PIR unless he can pull the big upset victory. That will be a powerful motivator for the Penske Racing No. 22 team. While Logano has never won at Phoenix, he's been gaining some ground on Harvick's stranglehold. His outside pole and 35 laps led in the spring at this facility are indicative of how close he is to winning at this flat track. These drivers will be joined by short track specialists Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski in racing for the checkers this weekend. Three of the four are still alive in the Chase and looking to advance to Homestead with a Phoenix victory or enough points to crack the Top-4 in the standings. One thing is for certain, when the green flag drops at Phoenix International Raceway this Sunday afternoon the fireworks will fly as these drivers compete for the big stakes at the desert oval. We'll examine those championship contending teams who have a lot to race for this weekend at the Phoenix short track and those who could sneak up and surprise the playoff teams.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
Kevin Harvick -- Harvick has a lot on the line this weekend at PIR. He's just 3 points back of Chase leader Jeff Gordon and his championship hopes are less than assured. A victory here would lock him into Homestead and a one-race shot at repeating has champion. Harvick has won the last four Phoenix races and he's a great short track driver based on his career Sprint Cup Series numbers. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has a strong recent resume at this Arizona short track. He has 488 combined laps led in just the last two races at this flat oval and that adds to a career total of 1,202 laps led. Harvick won this March's Campingworld.com 500 in dominant style. You can bet the No. 4 team collected some great data that day and they'll deploy an identical setup for Sunday's race at the Phoenix oval.
Joey Logano -- The Penske Racing driver has had a great season, but he faces elimination this Sunday afternoon unless he can make a trip to victory lane. Logano has a career-best six victories, 20 Top-5 and 26 Top-10 finishes in 2015, and he's poised to challenge for the championship for the second season in a row. As a function of his championship aspirations, Logano should be honed razor sharp for this event. He has a four-race Top-10 streak at PIR coming to Avondale this weekend. Over that four-race span he's led a whopping 156 laps. That's second only to Harvick during the same time period. So not only has Logano been finishing inside the Top 10 but he's been leading laps and setting the pace. This driver and team have their backs to the wall and they should race like it at the Desert Jewel.
Jeff Gordon -- Gordon has had his share of success in the form two wins and 23 Top 10s in 33-career starts at PIR. The No. 24 team has given the veteran driver some pretty decent cars at Phoenix the last couple seasons, and that includes his current three-race Top-10 streak at the flat short track. Gordon's big upset victory at the Martinsville short track two weeks ago is about the best indicator of his potential this Sunday at PIR. That's reason to be encouraged heading into the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500. Gordon finished runner-up in this event one year ago, so he still has the speed and skill to contend for wins here. With this being a tune up for the championship round at Homestead, we expect the No. 24 team to be on their "A" game in this short track thriller.
Brad Keselowski -- While the No. 2 Ford team and Keselowski are battling to keep their championship hopes alive, that in no way makes him a no-go driver for Phoenix weekend. Keselowski has Top-5 finishes in three of his last five trips to PIR. That span includes 52 laps led and a sixth-place finish at the desert oval earlier this season. He had the fastest car on the track last week at Texas and we're sure the No. 2 team will unload another fast car this weekend. With the Penske Racing star facing championship elimination, he has the talent and motivation to put on a great performance at Phoenix International Raceway this weekend, and challenge for his first career victory at this small oval.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Jimmie Johnson -- Thanks to his dominant victory at Texas, Johnson heads to Phoenix this weekend with new energy and a morale boost. Despite having no shot at this season's championship, the desire to win will be a powerful driver. The motivation to dominate at a track where the No. 48 team has had lots of success will be very high. Johnson is a four-time winner at PIR, and he has a staggering 18 Top-10 finishes in 24-career starts (75-percent). The Hendrick Motorsports star is putting together momentum that should carry into the 2016 season, so there's no reason to sell this team short in the Quicken Loans Race for the Heroes 500.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- After cracking the Top 5 at Martinsville and cracking the Top 10 at Texas, we have to give a strong recommendation to Earnhardt and the No. 88 team at Phoenix. The NASCAR icon is a two-time winner with 12 Top-10 finishes at the Arizona short track. He had a poor outing here in March of this year, but upon examination it's clear that that performance was the exception and not the rule. Four of Earnhardt's last five Phoenix trips have yielded Top-10 finishes. That includes over 50 laps led during the span and three Top-5 finishes to underscore his abilities here. Considering his recent performances you have to like the Hendrick Motorsports star this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.
Carl Edwards -- The Joe Gibbs Racing star is looking to stay alive in the championship chase this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. Edwards has been a top performer at PIR throughout his 11-season Sprint Cup Series career. He has three pole positions, two victories and 12 Top-10 finishes in his 22 starts at the Desert Jewel. That works out to a strong 55-percent Top-10 rate at the facility. Edwards has a pair of Top-15 finishes in his last two PIR starts, but we expect him to turn it up a notch this Sunday with so much on the line. He won't likely win this Phoenix race, but he shouldn't be far off the leader's rear bumper cover.
Kyle Busch -- Busch's resume at PIR is a mixed bag, but it's been turning much more positive in recent seasons. He has two pole positions, one win and 12 Top 10s in 20 races at the desert oval. His most recent outings have yielded a pair of Top 10s in the last three events at the track. That illustrates his improvement at Phoenix. Considering that Busch comes to PIR second in the Chase standings this weekend, the stakes for this driver in this race have never been higher. Busch's upside is pretty tremendous and balanced with a career 60-percent Top-10 rate. The No. 18 team has something to prove this Sunday afternoon, so Busch should have some major potential in the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Texas who can provide a solid finish
Kurt Busch -- No matter what happens from this point on, Busch has had an incredible season. He has struggled at times but fought through to put the No. 41 team in the running for the championship with two races to go in 2015. With two victories and 19 Top-10 finishes to this point, Busch has something to build on for next season. PIR should present him with another opportunity to post a Top 10 before the season ends. Busch has solid career numbers at this small oval. 25-career starts have yielded 14 Top-10 finishes, 750 laps led and one victory. He's had his fair share of success at the Arizona flat track. In the spring race at the Phoenix short track, Busch qualified eighth and finished fifth in the Campingworld.com 500.
Martin Truex Jr. -- The No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team is trying to remain alive in the Chase for the Cup coming to Phoenix this weekend. The veteran driver rides a three-race Top-10 streak to the desert oval, and is on the bubble as far as advancing to Homestead and the Championship 4 is concerned. Truex has only seven Top-10 finishes in his 19-career starts at PIR. That works out to a lowly 17.1 average finish. Recent outings at the Arizona short track have been much better for this veteran driver. Truex has a pair of Top 10s in his last four trips to the Desert Jewel. That includes a strong seventh-place finish in March's Campingworld.com 500. Like many drivers, he has a lot on the line this weekend. We expect Truex to answer the call.
Denny Hamlin -- The Joe Gibbs Racing star heads to Phoenix as a driver on his way back to the top. After struggles earlier in the year, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has been gradually upping his performance the last couple months. This week he visits one of his better ovals in Phoenix International Raceway. Hamlin has great stats at this oval that are worth considering. He has two pole positions, one victory and 10 Top-10 finishes in his Phoenix resume. That works out to a respectable 50-percent Top-10 rate. With an impressive average finish of 11.6 at this D-shaped oval, we have to give the driver of the No. 11 Toyota due consideration for the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500.
Jamie McMurray -- Thanks to a 10th-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway, McMurray heads to Phoenix this weekend 13th in the driver standings. It's not quite the campaign he wanted in 2015, but McMurray is making the best of it down the stretch. While Phoenix hasn't held the career-long success that this veteran driver would like, outings have been steadily improving in his most recent seasons. Top-10 and Top-20 finishes have been much more frequent at PIR for the No. 1 Chevrolet team. Two of his last three Phoenix starts have netted Top-10 finishes for Chip Ganassi Racing. McMurray has the stuff to crack the Top 15 in this event.
Ryan Newman -- Newman has been less than consistent throughout this season's Chase. However, his short track performances have been pretty spotless. Top-10 finishes at Loudon and Martinsville bode well travelling to Arizona this week. The Richard Childress Racing driver boasts four career poles at PIR, and he picked up his first career win at the flat oval in the spring of 2010. In the 10 Phoenix starts since that victory, Newman has collected five Top-5 finishes, including one runner-up finish. Given his third-place performance at PIR in March of this year, this should be a good performance for the No. 31 RCR Chevrolet team.
Kyle Larson -- The young Chip Ganassi Racing driver is looking to end the 2015 season on a positive note and with some momentum heading into next year. That should be attainable given that the series is racing at Phoenix and Homestead the next two weeks. These have been great ovals for the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet. Larson has three-career starts at the Desert Jewel with finishes of 20th-, 13th- and 10th-place to his credit. The Top 10 came in this season's Campingworld.com 500, so the notes from that run will be fresh in the notebook. Larson has had fast cars the past few races, but bad luck. We expect him to cash in on his speed and skill this weekend.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
Tony Stewart -- Smoke has been largely irrelevant this season. With only three Top-10 finishes to this point in the season, it has been a forgettable campaign for the No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing team. Stewart has had tons of Phoenix success over the years with one win and 12 Top-10 finishes in his 26-career starts. However, recent outings have proven nothing less than difficult for the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet. Stewart crashed and finished 39th here in March, and he hasn't cracked the Top 10 in his last three visits to the Desert Jewel. It's best to pass up this veteran driver and team for Sunday's Quicken Loans Race for the Heroes 500.
Michael Annett -- After a disappointing 31st-place finish at Texas, it's clear that the HScott Motorsports driver is limping into the home stretch run of the season. Annett has only cracked the Top 25 twice during the Chase and it's been hard going most of the way. He has three-career starts at Phoenix International Raceway over the last two seasons. With two of those finishes being outside the Top 30, it's been a real challenge to finish races on the lead lap here for this young driver. Troubles in March's Campingworld.com 500 led to a poor 42nd-place finish for the driver of the No. 46 Chevrolet. The current struggles and Phoenix resume are poor enough to suggest leaving Annett on the fantasy racing bench this Sunday afternoon.
Danica Patrick -- The Stewart Haas Racing driver is looking towards the season finale and it just can't seem to get here fast enough. Despite some gains during the 2015 campaign, the No. 10 Chevy team has struggled during the Chase and of late in particular. Patrick is coming off three finishes outside the Top 20 in the last four events, and she comes limping into Phoenix. The Desert Jewel has been a track of struggles for this popular driver. She has six-career starts and only one Top-20 finish in those efforts. Three of the other five have been finishes outside the Top 30. The 28.8 career average finishes tells you all you need to know about Patrick this weekend.
Austin Dillon -- If you consider that Dillon has eclipsed his Top 10 total for his rookie season in 2015, then the campaign has been a success. However, being ranked outside the Top 20 in the driver standings still falls way short of expectations for the No. 3 team. Dillon is coming off a good Top-15 finish at Texas this past week, but the short tracks of the Chase have been another story all together for the young driver. He has only three-career Phoenix starts to his credit. Those have been finishes of 24th-, 38th- and 15th-place. While some improvement has been noted, it's likely that Dillon will be eclipsed by desperate Chase drivers this weekend, looking to stay alive in the championship. A finish outside the Top 20 seems most likely.
Taylor is a three-time FSWA Racing Writer of the Year.
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