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Good Sam 500 Preview

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The fourth race of the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season takes us to the flat one-mile layout at Phoenix International Raceway, one of the most beautiful backdrops the tour will see all year until making the trip again in November during the Chase. Situated on the base of the Estella Mountains, the combination of Saguaro cacti everywhere, constant sunshine and fun on Rattlesnake hill make it one of a kind.

I love the concept of having three straight West Coast races early in the season, but it's not very practical from a west coast fan perspective. When I was at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last Sunday I had the opportunity to talk with lots of the fans. There were a couple of parties I met anchored in on the infield with their RV's that will be going to Phoenix this week and Fontana in two weeks. They've taken three weeks out of their lives to live NASCAR -- pretty awesome stuff. I was extremely jealous.

But others I talked to at Las Vegas that don't have the liberty to take off work so long aren't very happy about three straight West Coast races this early. The problem is that NASCAR forces almost everyone to make a destination choice between the three. Where do I go, Las Vegas, Phoenix or Fontana? If the races were spaced out more across the schedule, there would be more people able to attend all three west coast dates. After Fontana next week, the series won't come out west again until late June at Sonoma and then not again until November with Phoenix again.

When I heard multiple fans at Las Vegas tell me this and then I looked around at LVMS and saw less people than ever in the stands, I thought they had some valid points. The wind was hitting 40 mph on Sunday, which may have discouraged some to attend, but there should still be cause for concern. If Las Vegas is having trouble filling the track, with all the city has to offer, there is something wrong with the set-up. The west coast swing thing may sound nice to the NASCAR folks in Daytona making the schedule, and they are saving some fuel with less travel, but it should be called west coast cannibalism.

Okay, that's all I have to say about that. As usual, I'll be watching the race on television, where to be truthful, I actually enjoy more in my older age than being at the race. Phoenix has always been a track I enjoyed watching not just because it's unique, but also because its one of the truest to driver ratings. Drivers expected to do well usually do and that's a big advantage in betting driving matchups.

Not only do you have past Phoenix data to go off, but you've also got flat tracks at Richmond and New Hampshire that require the same set-ups. If a driver does well on one, they'll do well on the others. This is the first go 'round on this type of track this season, but we should see the same players we saw last year that did well have similar results. That means Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson will be the focal points.

Those six drivers aren't all on the same level, however.

Harvick is a couple notched above the others just because he is the King of Phoenix. He's the track's all-time leader with seven wins as well as leading 1,345 laps in 26 career starts. Think about all those laps led for minute with only only 312 laps per race. Last year's fall race only had 219 laps due to rain, but between the two races in 2015 Harvick led 367 of the 531 total laps. Had the rain not happened, Harvick would have probably won his fifth straight Phoenix race. He settled for second. He's got five wins in his last seven there, which is why he is the short 3/1 favorite (Bet $100 to win $300) this week.

Last fall during the Chase, Dale Earnhardt Jr. busted up Harvick's hope of winning five straight. It was Junior's third win at Phoenix and first since 2004. He's been very good at Phoenix lately, finishing eighth or better in five of his past six starts there.

Jimmie Johnson's four Phoenix wins are second best to Harvick's seven, but Johnson hasn't won there since 2009 when he was on a run of winning four of five Phoenix races. Despite not winning there lately, he's still been classic Jimmie. His 7.7 average finish is best among all drivers as is his 15 top-five finishes in 25 starts. Harvick only has 11 top-fives in 26 starts to pit into perspective just how good Johnson is at Phoenix.

Denny Hamlin has a 2012 Phoenix win to his credit and his 11.4 average finish in third-best in the series. Hamlin's best tracks over his career have been the flat shorter types, which Phoenix fits.

Keselowski hasn't won at Phoenix yet, but has finished 11th or better in his past eight starts there, including sixth or better in six of them. His Team Penske teammate Joey Logano has a similar run of success going at Phoenix finishing ninth or better in his past five starts.Look for Chevrolet to come out strong and win its sixth straight Phoenix race.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #48 Jimmie Johnson (7/1)
2) #4 Kevin Harvick (3/1)
3) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12/1)
4) #2 Matt Kenseth (10/1)
5) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)

NASCAR Expert Picks
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