Subway Fresh Fit 500 Preview
February 26, 2013
By Micah Roberts
Now that we have the Daytona 500 out of the way we can get to seeing what this news Gen-6 car can do on tracks with no restrictions. NASCAR, in their attempt to erase the type of restrictor-plate racing we've seen over the last few years may have went too far with the version of racing produced over the last two weeks of Daytona speed weeks. I never like to call any race boring, but Sunday's race wasn't exactly the most thrilling product NASCAR has given its fans.
No one could pass on Sunday, but all that changes at the 1-mile flat track at Phoenix this week, a sharp contrast from Daytona's 2.5-mile beast. All indications are that the Gen-6 car will be racier than ever in the 32 races other than Daytona or Talladega. In order for drivers to be successful at Phoenix, it takes the perfect mix of driver skill, horsepower and a perfectly balanced car to handle the flat turns.
Over the years, a few drivers have found an edge for themselves that make them tough to beat at Phoenix. The driver at the top of the list could be looking at winning the first two races of the season.
Jimmie Johnson, who probably did the least amount of anything during Daytona speed weeks, made it count most when it mattered in the Daytona 500. That's what champions do. At Phoenix, no one has been better than Johnson who has compiled a 6.7 average finish over his career. He had his worst career finish at Phoenix last fall -- 32nd, but has won four times. At one juncture he went 10 straight races at Phoenix with a Top-5 finish.
Johnson winning the Daytona 500 might have a few drivers saying, "Here we go again." When the COT (Car of Tomorrow) -- the 5th Generation car -- was introduced in 2007, Hendrick Motorsports drivers dominated right out the gate. Between Johnson, Jeff Gordon and then Hendrick driver Kyle Busch, they piled up all the wins. They had the advantage in the new car due to extensive testing that all the other teams took almost a year to catch up to. Johnson would win the second of five straight NASCAR Cup Championships, in part because of the head start his team had with the new car.
Now we get to see if the massive Hendrick piggy bank can reproduce the same type of success with the Gen-6 car. Daytona is already in the bag, but that really isn't the true test. That will be known this week at Phoenix and the following week in Las Vegas. The 32 races away from Daytona and Talladega will be the true measure of who has the edge and who will be hoisting the championship trophy at the end of the season.
Chances are, Jimmie Johnson will be that guy again. The LVH Super Book dropped his odds to 7/2 following his Daytona win, a track that he had struggled at since last winning there in 2006. The thinking is that if Johnson can tackle his toughest tracks with success like he did Sunday, the Hendrick advantage in the Gen-6 car might propel him to his sixth title.
If you had to pick one team that might be able to go toe-to-toe with the Hendrick spending budget in testing, it might be the Joe Gibbs cars. Things started slow with the COT for Roush Racing and Richard Childress Racing, but the Gibbs crew adapted well when the COT ran the full season in 2008. It was Kyle Busch's best season to date with eight wins.
Denny Hamlin has always been good at Phoenix, and the flat tracks like New Hampshire and Richmond. Hamlin won the spring Phoenix race last season and finished runner-up in the fall. Ironically, it was Kevin Harvick who won in the fall and finished runner-up in the spring. Hamlin has a 10.3 average finish at Phoenix over his career.
Other drivers we should expect to run well also come from the Hendrick stables. Kasey Kahne won in the fall of 2011 and ran well last season. Jeff Gordon is a two time winner at Phoenix -- both coming in the COT and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a two-time winner himself -- winning back-to-back years in 2003-04.
Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle would look to be the top Roush candidates. Edwards wrecked five cars at Daytona between January testing, practice and race competition. When interviewed following his final wreck, he said he couldn’t wait to get to Phoenix and win. He won in 2010 at Phoenix and has been one of the better drivers the last three years during practices. Biffle has finished runner-up twice at Phoenix and last season finished seventh or better in both races.
Top-5 Finish Prediction
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (8/1)
2) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (10/1)
4) #5 Kasey Kahne (10/1)
5) #29 Kevin Harvick (10/1)
Danica Patrick's eighth-place finish at Daytona may give reason to believe that she is ready for the big leagues, but the reality is that she didn't really have to do anything at Daytona. She just went along for the ride and stayed out of trouble. She never had to make a move and basically played follow the leader. We have seen her have some success in past plate races, but Phoenix will be different. She is going to have to race, make decisions, and battle, and I'm not so sure she's ready for that yet. One thing going for her is that she does have a great car. The Stewart-Haas team is a spin-off of Hendrick Motorsports and should have some of their advantages.