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Phoenix Preview: It's time to return to regular racing

by Dave Grayson
Thursday, February 24, 2011

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Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards do battle in last year's Phoenix race
Remember last Sunday when 15.6 million television viewers, and 182,000 spectators, watched the Daytona 500 in awe stuck wonder over a form of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing we had never seen before? We all marveled at the two car drafts, the elaborate radio communications to set up driver partnerships and the changes NASCAR had to implement to keep their Sprint Cup cars under the 200 MPH zone.

Forget about that for the time being. It's time to return to regular racing. The elite of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will be doing some good old fashioned flat track racing at the Phoenix International Raceway this Sunday with the running of the Subway Fresh Fit 500 (K). Sunday's race is going to be about which team has the best handling, and the best car balance, while negotiating a one mile oval that basically has no banking at all. There's also the element of passing for position at Phoenix: it's not that easy and has to be carefully negotiated.

THE STORY BREAKDOWN

One of the more obvious story lines will involve the element of redemption. There are a lot of high profile Sprint Cup teams who left Daytona last weekend with disappointing finishes which in turn placed them between a rock and hard place in the early season championship standings. This is especially true of the teams who found themselves caught up in the early race, 17 car, "big one." It also applies to Richard Childress Racing drivers Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton. Both were considered pre season Chase contenders and both exited the Daytona 500 with uncharacteristic blown engines.

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Then there's the matter of Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne. With winning the great American race comes a media and public relations blitz that would wear out even a healthy 20 year old. Bayne literally spent this week criss crossing the country while doing telephone interviews in between personal appearances.

Bayne also had a big decision to make this week regarding which NASCAR championship he would be running for in 2011. Recent changes in NASCAR policy states that a driver can only declare to seek just one of their big three national touring titles. Bayne, scheduled to race the full time NASCAR Nationwide Series for Roush Fenway Racing, had originally declared to run for that title. But after the Daytona Cup win he was presented with an offer to change his option for the Chase title.

In what is considered to be a very wise move, Bayne chose to stick to his original option and seek the Nationwide title. While the sponsorship profile for his Roush Fenway Ford is still rather tentative at this point, the effort is being backed by one of the more powerful teams in NASCAR who will insure the car is entered in every one of the events on the Nationwide schedule.

On the Sprint Cup side, Bayne's tenure with Wood Brothers Racing was originally set for a part time schedule of 17 sponsored races. That number was bumped to 18 events after the team decided to use a portion of the Daytona winnings to add the Martinsville race to their schedule. While it's extremely possible that the team's Daytona performance could attract new sponsorships, there is no real guarantee the offers will be enough to cover the expenses of all 36 races.

Again, Bayne made a wise choice that was likely aided by some sage advice from the likes of Jack Roush.

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Also this weekend you will hear a lot about the lawsuit issued by former NASCAR Sprint Cup team owner Ray Evernham against his former partner George Gillette Jr. The suit is seeking damages of $19.3 million and was filed this past Tuesday at the North Carolina Superior Court in Mecklenburg County. The specific defendants are the Gillette owned Booth Creek Management and Gillette GEMS LLC.

Evernham, who created the team, that is now known as Richard Petty Motorsports, sold the majority interest to Gillette back in 2007. After some extreme problems in his financial profile, Gillette sold the operation to a group of businessmen, including Richard Petty, late last year. Evernham claims that he was never paid for his former 20% interest in the team and Gillette is in breach of their contract.

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A God bless and welcome goes to the newest member of the NASCAR nation. Sprint Cup driver Matt Kenseth and his wife Katie welcomed the arrival of their new baby daughter this week. Grace Katherine Kenseth arrived at 3:49 am Tuesday morning weighing seven pounds eight ounces. Mom and daughter are reported to be doing just fine. The new baby joins her sister Kaylin and brother Ross.

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Over the past several years we've all witnessed Sprint Cup driver Carl Edwards do his signature back flip off of his car after winning a race. I've often wondered if team owner Jack Roush was a little nervous over this maneuver due to the high possibility of a bad landing and driver injury.

If a back flip worries Roush then you have to wonder about his feelings regarding what his dare devil driver did on Thursday in Las Vegas. Edwards was in town to help promote the March 6th Sprint Cup race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Apparently he thought it would really cool to visit the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino and take in their "Sky Jump Las Vegas." This is a controlled free fall plummet of 885 feet at approximately 40 MPH.

The good news is the fall offers a breath taking, panoramic, view of the Las Vegas Strip. The bad news is it's a little nerve racking for NASCAR team owners to learn that their driver is the one doing the free fall.

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THE VEGAS BREAKDOWN

The Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange, (WSE), has placed driver Denny Hamlin on top of their list to win Sunday's race and they're backing it with  5 to 1 odds. This is a most interesting proposition. Hamlin is still seeking his first win at Phoenix, but he does have a previous track record of five top five finishes, six top tens along with an average finish of 11.6 at the track.

Second on the WSE list this week is a wager that makes a lot more sense. It's Jimmie Johnson who practically rules the important categories at the Phoenix International Raceway. Johnson has a series high four wins there along with ten top five finishes and 13 top tens. He also has a series high average finish ratio of 4.9.

Next in line, at 13 to 2, is Carl Edwards which is another worthy consideration. Edwards won the second Phoenix event last November in a very dominating fashion. Also bear in mind that there is a huge momentum swing at Roush Fenway Racing and the Roush Yates Engines program, with the Ford FR9 engines, seems to be running at full strength.

At seven to one you will find former Phoenix winner Kyle Busch who is always a threat to find victory lane on any given weekend. Next is a trio of drivers, led by two time race winner Kevin Harvick, at 12 to 1. Harvick is joined by former Phoenix winners Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon in this category.

At 18 to 1 you will find drivers Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle. Busch is a former Phoenix winner. You also have to factor the Penske Racing operation's strong presence during Daytona Speedweeks. Biffle is another driver from the Roush Fenway Ford stable and, at 18 to 1, is a wager well worth considering.

Clint Bowyer, and his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, is rated 20 to 1 this week followed by Roush Fenway Ford driver Matt Kenseth at 21 to 1 odds. But it's the driver at 22 to 1 odds that could be the strongest consideration for those of you who don't mind long shot wagers. That would be Mark Martin whose Phoenix stats includes two wins, a series high 12 top fives and 19 top ten finishes. Martin also has a very healthy average finish ratio of 8.5 at Phoenix.

Also a worthy long shot consideration is two time Phoenix winner Jeff Burton along with Ryan Newman, who won last year's April race. Both drivers are listed at 23 to 1 odds this week.

At the bottom half of the WSE listing this week you will find Juan Pablo Montoya at 30 to 1. At 40 to 1 is a quartet of drivers featuring Dale Earnhardt Jr, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr and David Reutimann. Finally the WSE doesn't seem to have a lot of faith in the Red Bull Racing Toyotas this week. They have their drivers, Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers, listed at 50 and 55 to 1.

Now for the disclaimer. NASCAR wants us to remind you that these numbers are for information and entertainment purposes. They neither encourage or condone the placing of wagers on their races. For those of you who may feel guilty about going against their wishes, then send the money to me and I'll place the bet for you. (Yeah Right !)

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THE RACE BREAKDOWN

The Subway Fresh Fit 500 (K) is 312 laps, 312 miles/500 km, around the Phoenix International Raceway's one mile oval.

The race has 45 entries vying for the 43 starting berths. Ten of those entries are on the go or go home list. This means these teams do not have a guaranteed start because they are currently outside of the top 35 in NASCAR owner's points. These teams will have to rely on qualifying speed to make the race.

That could pose a problem for the go or go home teams due to the weather. The Saturday forecast calls for rain in the Phoenix area which could wash out qualifying. It could also hamper the running of the NASCAR Nationwide Series scheduled for Saturday evening. Sunday's forecast calls for clearing skies with some variable high clouds and a daytime high of 65 degrees.

Opened in 1964, the Phoenix International Raceway complex features a one mile oval connected to a 2.5 mile road course. The track is a prominent challenge to drivers because of its flat nature. There are only 11 degrees banking in turns one and two and nine degrees in turns three and four. The frontstretch, 1,179 feet, only has three degrees banking while the backstretch, 1,551 feet, is banked nine degrees. The pit road speed is 45 MPH. The speedway presently has seating for 76,812 fans.

The late Alan Kulwicki won the first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Phoenix back in 1988. Since that time the series has raced there 29 times with 21 different drivers parking their cars in victory lane.

Carl Edwards holds the track qualifying record, 136.389 MPH, set in November of last year.

The Subway Fresh Fit 500 (K) will be broadcast live by Fox Sports with the pre race show beginning at 230 pm eastern time. The replay will be broadcast by the SPEED Channel on Wednesday, March 2nd, beginning at 12 pm eastern.

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