Track history: In 1964, the Phoenix International Raceway was built in the foothills of the Estrella Mountains to accommodate open-wheel racing. The 1-mile oval track has 11-degree banking in Turns 1 and 2 and 9-degree banking in Turns 3 and 4. The 1,179-foot frontstretch and 1,551-foot backstretch have very little banking (less than 9 degrees). In 1988, NASCAR began racing at the Arizona track, hosting the annual fall 312 lap Checker Auto Parts 500.
The track is similar to a short track in that the corners are flat, long and sweeping. The cars spend a lot of time in the corners which makes the setups extremely important. The preferred line is at the bottom of the track at the start, but a higher second groove develops during the race.
PIR spent $5 million to install 1,044 Musco lighting fixtures and ran its first night-time Cup event and first spring race as well in April 2005.
Following the February 27, 2011 Subway Fresh Fit 500, PIR went into a track repaving and restructuring mode. Besides installing a new four-layer asphalt and aggregate surface, the track project included widening the front stretch from 52 to 26 feet, installation of concrete pit stalls, pushing the dog-leg curve between Turn 2 and Turn 3 out 95 feet and the implementation of variable banking to ensure the use of two racing grooves.
November 6, 1988: Geoffrey Bodine put the No. 5 Levi Garrett Chevrolet on the pole for the 1988 Checker 500, led two laps and finished sixth. Ricky Rudd looked to be the winner, leading the most laps (183) but the engine went south in the No. 26 Quaker State Buick dropping him to 26th place. Alan Kulwicki started the No. 7 Zerex Ford 21st in the lineup, led 41 laps including the last, to take the inaugural PIR Cup victory.
March 4, 2012: Denny Hamlin won the Subway Fresh Fit 500 from a 13th place start. It was the No. 11 Toyota driver's first victory and second top-10 finish in 2012. He broke a 22-race winless streak. It was Hamlin's first victory and seventh top-10 finish in 14 races at Phoenix. Pole-sitter No. 55 Mark Martin led one lap and finished ninth. Drivers leading 10 or more laps: No. 56 Martin Truex Jr. 29 laps, finished seventh; No. 18 Kyle Busch 52 laps, finished sixth; No. 48 Jimmie Johnson 55 laps, finished fourth; race-winner Hamlin 61 laps and No. 29 Kevin Harvick led the most laps (88 of 312) and finished second.
November 11, 2012: Kevin Harvick won the AdvoCare 500 from a 19th place start. This was the No. 29 Chevrolet driver's first victory of 2012, breaking a 44-race winless streak. It was his third victory and 10th top-10 finish in 20 races at Phoenix. Drivers leading 10 or more laps: No. 2 Brad Keselowski 10 laps, finished sixth; race-winner Harvick 15 laps; No. 11 Denny Hamlin 46 laps, finished second and pole-sitter No. 18 Kyle Busch led the most laps (237) and finished third.
Track Quick Facts (courtesy NASCAR Media):
Last five winners: Carl Edwards 11/14/10, Jeff Gordon 2/27/11, Kasey Kahne 11/13/11, Denny Hamlin 3/4/12 and Kevin Harvick 11/11/12.
First Cup start here (Active drivers): Mike Wallace 11/3/91, Ryan Newman 11/5/00, Clint Bowyer 4/23/05, Sam Hornish Jr. 11/11/07 and Cole Whitt 11/13/11.
First Cup pole: Denny Hamlin 11/13/05 and AJ Allmendinger 4/10/10.
First Cup win: No driver yet.
This being the first “regular” race of the season (no Speedweeks; no special qualifier races), it’s difficult to figure out which drivers are mid-packers. Also, the top 20 in points will change radically over the next few races. For those reasons we’ll be looking at most drivers not considered track favorites as fair game for this column.. for now.. We’ll get back to avoiding drivers in the top 20 after a couple more weekends.
Fantasy games won’t allow you to pick all track favorites so Mid-Pack Attack is here to help. A mid-packer may not win the race but has as good a shot at a top 20 finish as track favorites Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson. There were 43 cars on the preliminary entry list for this weekend’s Cup race. Here are our picks for Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500(k) in Avondale, Arizona.
Track favorite Johnson is the only driver who has a better average finish than Mark Martin at Phoenix. Johnson averaged a 6.7 finish in 19 starts. Martin’s average finish is a 9.1 but that’s over 32 races. The 54-year old has not lost his touch at the one-mile track. Since 2009, his average finish is an 8.1 in eight starts which includes a win and two poles. In this race last season, Martin finished ninth from the pole and he came back in November to score a 10th place. Let’s not forget the veteran finished third last week in the Daytona 500. This is a great weekend to include the No. 55 Toyota on your fantasy roster.
Another driver who was “racy” last week was Greg Biffle. He finished 6th at Daytona. In his 18 Cup starts at PIR, he earned five top-five and seven top-10 finishes while leading a total of 349 laps. He has an average finishing position of 13.7 from an average 14.2 start. Biffle also earned three Phoenix wins in his 12 starts in the Nationwide Series. His last Truck Series race at the one-mile track in the desert (2001) resulted in a victory. In 2012, he logged finishes of third and seventh in the two Sprint Cup races at this track. Give the No. 16 Ford a spot on your roster.
After parting ways with Penske Racing, Kurt Busch needed to get accustomed to two different new teams for his Cup starts at PIR in 2012. He drove for a smaller team, Phoenix Racing, in March; finished a respectable 15th place. In the November race, driving for his current team, Furniture Row Racing, he improved to an eighth place finish. In 20 career starts here, Busch has a 13.2 average finish. This includes one win for yet another team, Roush Fenway Racing. It appears he adapts well to change. Keep an eye on the No. 78 Chevrolet driver this Sunday.
Our deepest pick this week is one of the Rookie of the Year contenders. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will be making his first Sprint Cup start at “The Desert Jewel”. He has some excellent Nationwide Series history at this track. In six starts, he never finished outside of the top-10. He has completed every lap in those races. Stenhouse’s six finishes show his improvement (ninth, ninth, seventh, fifth, third and third, respectively). He may not carry that over driving the new Gen-6 car but you could expect a top 20 or better from the No. 17 Ford driver.