Stock Car Challenge preview: Phoenix
There are only two races left to decide the Nextel Cup championship. That means there are only two events remaining in the final segment of the Stock Car Challenge for 2007. You obviously will need to anchor your squad with either Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon to win your group. It's not easy to decide which one to pick, and in most cases, it's difficult to afford both on your roster.
Johnson is on fire, having won three consecutive races, and now has a series-high nine victories in 2007. Gordon, however, now trails in the standings and will be operating with a greater sense of urgency at Phoenix International Raceway. Gordon excels on Phoenix's narrow, flat one-mile surface, and Johnson fully expects Gordon to be in top form this week.
"We have momentum going our direction right now," Johnson said, "but it's only 30 points. And if you look at the last two weeks, I've been able to make up roughly 60 points, and Jeff hasn't had bad races the last two events. He's had strong finishes. So it's not like he's had bad nights. I can finish 10th and he can win, and I'm back in second."
Of course, winning your group will come down to more than just leaning on Gordon or Johnson to win. While half of the Chase field has been officially eliminated from title contention, many drivers will still try to play the role of spoiler. Kevin Harvick's crew chief, Todd Berrier, knows there will be little room for mistakes at Phoenix this week.
"Phoenix is very similar to a (New Hampshire) or Richmond. The races are short, and you really have to have your act together when the thing starts," Berrier said. "It's really hard on brakes ... and you have to turn well, but you have to do it all really early because it's a 300-lap race. If you're off a little bit, you're 30th. It takes a long time to get back to the front."
Jeff Gordon (Value: 24.6): He won at Phoenix from the pole in April, his first career win at the site, and now returns with a great need for a win. He has eight top-5 finishes and 14 top-10 showings in 17 career starts at Phoenix. Expect a good qualifying run, as Gordon has taken the pole at Phoenix three times. Gordon has an average finish of 8.2 at the site. During the past five races at Phoenix, he has an average running position of 8.1, which is fourth-best among active drivers. His 1,384 laps in the top 15 during that span ranks third among all drivers. Gordon has finished in the top 10 in the past three races, but look for him to run near the front of the field when it counts the most this week.
Jimmie Johnson (24.1): There is no hotter driver right now, and while he has never won at Phoenix, Johnson is putting past results to rest as he moves towards his second consecutive championship. Johnson had never won at Texas before he overtook Matt Kenseth for the win there last week. In eight career races at Phoenix, Johnson has an average finish of 7.3. He has six top-10 showings and three top-5 outings at the site. In the past five races at the site, he ranks second among all drivers in average running position (6.1), fastest laps run (130) and laps in the top 15 (1,446). He also has the fastest green-flag speed of any driver during that span.
Tony Stewart (22.5): It's time for him to turn things around and finish well. For the first time this year, Stewart has failed to finish in the top 10 in three consecutive races. Phoenix is where he will regain his form. He has finished second in two of the past three races at the site. He has seven top-10 finishes and five top-5 showings in 11 career races at Phoenix. He has an average finish of 9.9 there, and in the past five Phoenix races, he has an average running position of 10.4. He has also spent 1,166 laps in the top 15 during that span.
Kevin Harvick (20.3): Harvick swept both races at Phoenix last year. He has four top-10 and three top-5 finishes in the past five races at Phoenix. In the past five races at the site, he leads all drivers in average running position (5.8) and laps in the top 15 (1,452). His 122 of the fastest laps run are second among all drivers during that span. Harvick is well-prepared for a strong run at one of his favorite tracks. "Phoenix is another place where you need to get through the center of the corner, but you also have to have forward bite," he said. "As the run goes on, the car tends to get tighter in the center of the corner, so you need to keep your car turning well there and be able to stay in the throttle up [coming out of the corner]."
Greg Biffle (19.1): He has an average finish of 19.6 at Phoenix, but Biffle has run well there before and just needs to finish better. He has led for a total of 342 laps in seven career starts at the site. He finished second in the second Phoenix race of 2005. He has qualified in the top 6 in four of the past five races at the site. In the past five Phoenix races, Biffle leads all drivers with 195 of the fastest laps run. He also ranks fifth in fastest green-flag speed during that span.
Bobby Labonte (16.3); Labonte has nine top-10 finishes at Phoenix and finished eighth in the first race of 2007 at the site. Labonte also finished eighth in the first Phoenix race of 2006. He has managed to finish in the top 10 in five of the past six races at Phoenix, so he will be one of the better lower-priced drivers this week. Labonte also managed to finish 16th last week at Texas.
Brian Vickers (16.0): He will be one of the best bargain drivers available this week. He finished 11th at Phoenix earlier this season and has an average finish of 14.3 at the site. Vickers finished 13th in the second Phoenix race last season and placed fifth in the first race at the site in 2005. Look for a good qualifying run, as Vickers has an average staring position of 5.3 at Phoenix. He started third in the second Phoenix race of 2006.
Jeff Burton (20.8) has two career wins at Phoenix. & Johnny Sauter (13.6) has finished ninth in two of his past three races at Phoenix. & Tony Raines (15.1) finished 14th in the first Phoenix race of 2007 and has finished inside the top 20 in two of the past three races at the site. & Reed Sorenson (15.4) finished 15th in the first Phoenix race of 2007.