NOTES FROM THE NASCAR NATION: A show down in the valley of the sun

NASCAR’s vision for their 2010 Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship has turned into everything they were hoping for when the program began many years ago. As the series heads into the next to the last race of the 2010 season, the current version of the Chase is a three way shoot out heading towards a racing environment where anything can happen. When the checkers falls on Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500, some one’s going to leave the Phoenix International Raceway all smiles and full of confidence and some one’s going to head home wondering if their championship run is now over.

THE STORY BREAKDOWN

There are plenty of story lines to look at heading into Sunday’s race at Phoenix. Many of them are leftovers from last weekend’s wild west show at Texas. But the focal point is, and must be, the Chase. Denny Hamlin goes into the Phoenix race 33 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson and 59 ahead of third place Kevin Harvick.

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Adding to the intensity of these numbers are the facts that Phoenix is a very challenging, and sometime troublesome, speedway. It’s one mile oval qualifies it for short track status. The fact that it’s virtually flat as a pancake in the turns makes it challenging for the drivers to pull off a clean pass. The Phoenix International Raceway is short track racing on steroids and anything could happen to impact the latest Chase numbers.

Of the three championship contenders, Denny Hamlin’s numbers at this race track could use some work. He’s still searching for his first win in ten previous starts. But he does have five top five finishes, six top tens with an average finish ratio of 11.6.

But it’s this team’s mental focus that is outstanding. When Hamlin crossed under the checkers last Sunday, after winning the Texas race, he came over the radio and said “it’s on.” That’s probably the best two line definition of the 2010 Chase anyone could possibly come up with. Later in the week Hamlin said he would approaching the Phoenix race like he was 33 points down instead of 33 points in the lead.

Then there’s the matter of four time consecutive champion Jimmie Johnson and his highly potent drive for five campaign. When it comes to numbers compiled at Phoenix the #48 team rules the valley of the sun. They’ve won four of their last six races there. Johnson in 14 previous starts has also compiled nine top fives, 12 top fens and has an amazing average finish ratio of 4.9 at this track. If there is a race track on the entire NASCAR schedule where Johnson can make up 33 points and re establish his points lead, then Phoenix is that place.

Don’t expect last Sunday’s surprise crew swap, between the Johnson and Jeff Gordon teams, to be any form of distraction during the Phoenix race. Last Wednesday Chad Knaus, crew chief for the #48 team emphasized that before the decision was made to keep the swap permanent for the final two races of the year everyone involved signed off on it. That included the two drivers, team owner Rick Hendrick and Marshall Carlson, President of Hendrick Motorsports. Next Knaus presented the idea to the pit crew members.”We got the guys together and we discussed it with them and they all bought into it one hundred percent,” Knaus said adding “there’s a lot of positive in it to be honest.”

Kevin Harvick’s numbers at Phoenix includes three wins in 15 starts along with three top five finishes, six top tens along with an average finish ratio of 15.0.

Harvick, however, does have an advantage over his fellow Chase contenders: laps and experience at this race track. With his career stemming from his native Bakersfield-California, Phoenix was a frequent touring point for Harvick. He has raced there in late models, the former NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour Series, the NASCAR Winston West Series and of course all three of NASCAR’s national touring series. He’s also considered to be a master of flat track racing.

He will need that experience this Sunday. To coin a phrase from the world of professional poker, Harvick’s Chase aspirations have hit “all in” status. He needs to eradicate a large share of the 59 point lead that Hamlin has on him this Sunday so he can make an all out assault on the title during the final championship weekend.

The truth be known, Harvick probably longs for the days of yesteryear when the old points system was still in place. Under that old system he would be first in the championship standings, 300 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson and the official engraver of NASCAR would have received instructions to start placing his name on the champion’s trophy.

What’s the great equalizer here? It could turn out to be qualifying positions and the pit stall selections that come with it.

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At this point of the week we have already seen the video of the Jeff Gordon-Jeff Burton dust up, from last week’s Texas race, so many times we can practically recite their post fight comments. You can expect to see an encore presentation of that piece of video many more times during the Phoenix weekend. But that’s all you should expect from the moment. It appears that the two drivers have talked it out, they are fine, and we should not be looking for any reason to expect round two.

In fact, on Wednesday night, the incident between these two drivers hit a comical note. Gordon was in Nashville to make a special appearance on the annual Country Music Association’s award show. Country music superstar, and show co-host, Brad Paisley assigned a new nickname to Gordon: “Scrappy.”

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The other piece of video you will see a lot this weekend will be the sight of the four Richard Petty Motorsports car and equipment haulers sitting in the parking lot of the Texas Motor Speedway where they spent stranded from Sunday night to late Wednesday afternoon. The RPM haulers were joined in the wait by a fifth hauler belonging to Roush Fenway Racing, Inside of that hauler were the eight race cars RPM needed for the Phoenix race. The Petty organization leases their cars from Roush Fenway and their power plants from Roush Yates Engines. The Roush truck driver was under strict orders not to load the race cars into the Petty haulers until he received a call informing him that the RPM check was cleared and fully funded.

This is of course the latest saga in the struggle for RPM financial solvency. It’s also the third race in a row where delivery of race cars and engines were momentarily delayed until the vendor received payment. The funding for the Phoenix cars were expected to be in place my Monday but, for unspecified reasons, that deadline could not be met. It was late Wednesday afternoon before the matter was resolved and the cars were loaded into the four RPM haulers so they could begin the long 18 hour drive from Texas to Phoenix.

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The one piece of video that we hope is shown a lot is connected with Ryan Newman’s #39 U.S. Army, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet. This special edition Sprint Cup car has over 500 faces of military veterans incorporated into the paint job in honor of the recently observed Veterans Day. The Newman team will also have a honored guest on pit road with them on Sunday. 85 year old U.S Army and World War Two veteran Luis Rodriquez Jr, from Sahuarita-Arizona will spend Sunday as an honorary member of the Newman team.

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For those you whose schedules allow you to be home on Monday mornings, then check out the NASCAR edition of “The Price Is Right”. The November 15th episode will feature NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers Clint Bowyer and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Austin Dillon. The drivers will be present two NASCAR themed showcases: a North Carolina trip to the Hall Of Fame, a trip to Miami to attend the season ending events for all three of NASCAR’s national touring series and a Chevrolet Impala SS. The show will air on CBS at 11 am eastern time.

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THE VEGAS BREAKDOWN

To no real surprise the Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange, WSE, has four time Phoenix winner Jimmie Johnson on top of their of their weekly rankings at 7 to 2 odds. Also, to no surprise, the WSE has Denny Hamlin right behind Johnson at 9 to 2. The recently subdued Kyle Busch is ranked at five to 1. Kevin Harvick, at 10 to 1 odds, could turn out to be a potentially lucrative wager.

In the middle section of this week’s WSE rankings you will find previous Phoenix winners Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon at 12 to 1. At 15 to 1 odds you will find Mark Martin who could turn out to be an interesting long shot bet this week. After a dismal roller coaster of a season, Martin’s team has been in resurgence mode lately. He’s a two time winner at Phoenix and also holds the track records for most top five and most top ten finishes. At 18 to 1 is a trio of drivers that includes race winner Kurt Busch along with Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards.

In the lower tier of this week’s rankings you will find two time Phoenix winner Jeff Burton at 20 to 1 which, like Martin, could make an interesting long shot wager. Also in the 20 to 1 group are Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. At 25 to 1 is a quartet of drivers featuring Joey Logano, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray and former winner Ryan Newman. The list closes with drivers Martin Truex Jr and Kasey Kahne at 30 to 1 odds.

Now for the disclaimer. NASCAR wants us to remind you that these numbers are for entertainment and informational numbers only. They neither encourage nor condone the placing of wagers on their races.

Instead you may want to consider sending some money to Jimmy Spencer, in care of the SPEED Channel’s “NASCAR Race Hub” program. Spencer has been spending a lot of money on those crying towels he issues here lately.

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THE RACE BREAKDOWN

The Kobalt Tools 500K is 312 laps-312 miles-500 kilometers around the Phoenix International Raceway’s one mile oval.

The race has 46 entries. 11 of the entries are on the go or go home list. That means these teams are not guaranteed a starting berth because they are currently outside of NASCAR’s top 35 in owner’s points. These teams will have to earn a starting berth based on their qualifying speeds.

The defending race champion, from last November, is Jimmie Johnson. Ryan Newman won the spring Phoenix event this past April.

Good track position, established by qualifying, is very important at Phoenix. Ryan Newman holds the track qualifying record, 135.854 MPH, set back in November of 2004. He also holds the track record for winning the most poles at four.

Construction began on the Phoenix International Raceway in 1964. The result was a one mile oval with a connecting 2.5 mile road course.

The late Alan Kulwicki won the first Sprint Cup race at Phoenix in November of 1988. Since that time there has been 28 Sprint Cup races there that has sent 20 different winners to victory lane.

The Phoenix International Raceway is a basically flat track with only 11 degrees of banking in turns one and two and just nine degrees in turns three and four. The front stretch measures 1,179 feet with three degrees banking and the backstretch measures 1,551 feet with nine degrees of banking.

The pit road speed is 45 MPH.

The track presently has grandstand seating for 76,812 fans.

The weather forecast for Sunday race day in Phoenix calls for sunny skies and a daytime high of 71 degrees.

The Kobalt Tools 500K will be broadcast live by the ESPN Network beginning at 2 pm eastern time. The re airs will be Monday morning, 230 am et and again on Wednesday, 12 pm et on SPEED.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

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