by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Race: Kobalt Tools 500
Track: Phoenix International Raceway
Location: Avondale, Ariz.
When: Sunday, Nov. 13
TV: ESPN (3:00 p.m. EST)
Specs: 1-mile oval; Banking/Frontstretch: 3°; Banking/Turns 1 and 2: Variable (10°-11°); Banking/Dogleg: Variable (10°-11°); Banking/Turn 4: Variable (8°-9°)
February Winner: Jeff Gordon
2010 Winners: Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards
2011 Race Length: 312 miles/312 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 137.279 mph (Carl Edwards, 2011)
Race Record: 118.132 mph (Tony Stewart, 1999)
From the Spotter’s Stand
Jeff Gordon looked and sounded more like an unlikely 20 year-old Daytona 500 winner than a 20-year veteran with four titles in Phoenix International Raceway’s Victory Lane in February. Gordon broke a 66-race winless skid by moving past Kyle Busch with nine laps remaining to post the win.
While Gordon’s car was strong that day (138 laps led), don’t pencil him in for another win too fast. Phoenix has been repaved and reconfigured since the Cup Series’ last visit. It’s expected that until a second groove is rubbered-in, this may be a single-file show — something the drivers certainly don’t want to see — but if it races like the “old” Bristol, the fans may pleasantly surprised.
“It’s not just that there was not a second groove,” Gordon says of the Phoenix tire test conducted in August. “It was if you got a foot outside of that groove, you were either in the wall or you were going to lose a lap. It took that long to get back in the groove and clean the tires off and get back up to speed. That is the part where I say things could be very interesting and challenging.”
Two-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick agrres, painting a rather grim picture of what the racing could look like:
“If the second groove doesn’t come in, it is going to be a fuel mileage, single-file, tough to pass race. It will be a track position game with lots of wrecks.”
The desert also ended droughts for both Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards in 2010. Newman had gone 77 races since winning the Daytona 500 in 2008 before taking the checkers — after taking two tires rather than the full four — at Phoenix in April.
Meanwhile, Cousin Carl hadn’t back-flipped after a Cup win in 70 races prior to squeezing every last drop out of his fuel tank and dusting runner-up Newman by 4.77 seconds to take back-to-back Cup and Nationwide wins at the one-mile Avondale oval in November. This race will forever be burned into Denny Hamlin’s mind as the event where his team lost a championship. Yes, Hamlin and the team still had a shot the next weekend at Homestead, but after this bungled finish, they were mentally beaten.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Turns 1 and 2 are completely different than Turns 3 and 4 at Phoenix, which makes it difficult to find the right balance in the setup. And with a new surface as well as a reconfiguration, it’ll be all about track position. One groove — on the bottom — will probably make for a single-file race until some serious rubber gets worked into the track. Certain drivers — Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch come to mind — sort of know the tricks there. It takes a pretty talented driver to be willing to experiment out there, and Phoenix rewards the ones who find the tricks.”
Looking at Checkers: You have to figure Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards are going to pull out all the stops.
Pretty Solid Pick: Jeff Gordon led a race-high 138 laps here in February.
Good Sleeper Pick: Martin Truex Jr. typically notches top-15 runs in the desert.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: David Ragan needs some solid showings to end the season in order to score a 2012 ride, but his 26.1-place average finish here is nasty.
Insider Tip: Friday and Saturday practice sessions may be the most critical of any all season. Pay close attention.
Classic Moments at PIR
For the first time in 13 years, The King returns to Victory Lane. Bobby Hamilton, driving Richard Petty’s No. 43 STP Pontiac, leads 40 laps in the 1996 Dura Lube 500 at PIR to earn his first career Cup win.
Hamilton loses the lead on pit road, falling to fourth for a lap 266 restart, but he blows by Mark Martin and Terry Labonte within seven laps, and gets by Geoff Bodine 10 laps later to secure his first of three career cup triumphs.
“I’ve told a lot of people, there’s Dale Earnhardt fans or Bill Elliott fans, but when those guys fall out of the race, they’re still Richard Petty fans,” Hamilton says. “I thought it was pretty cool to win this race for him.”