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A Mile Full of Questions

Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. talk during last month's test at PIR. Photo: Getty Images

By now you've probably heard that Phoenix International Raceway underwent a huge face lift this summer.

Only in Arizona is the weather warm enough that you can space races so far apart to undertake these changes during the season!  The raceway changed some of the banking, reshaped the backstretch to more of a dog leg and laid down new pavement on the aging track.

All of these will make this race the Chase's biggest wild card outside of Talladega.

Most of the drivers are approaching the track as if it's one they've never raced on before, and, in some ways, that's a fair thought.  The reshaped dog leg changes the overall configuration of the track, so drivers will have to modify their vision of the track.  Imagine if you moved the bed in your room.  Sure, it's the same room and the same bed, but you'll have to walk to a different spot before you can lie down.

That dog leg, along with the added banking, are also expected to make the one-mile oval run a little faster than it has in the past.  The higher speeds could potentially be an issue due to the repaving.  In an early October test session, drivers said that the new surface didn't have a second racing groove and that cars tended to get up in the wall if they fell out of the first groove.

PIR has worked hard in the month since then to lay down more rubber and try to get the surface ready for a race.  However, we won't know until Sunday how the track ends up racing.  In fact, we won't really know too much of anything about what to expect until the Kobalt Tools 500 goes green on 3 p.m. Sunday on ESPN.

There aren't really many other tracks to which to compare it.  NHMS and Dover are each one-mile, but NHMS is flatter, Dover is more banked and both are more paperclipped than Phoenix's new tri-oval look.  The best comparison in terms of shape and banking might be Richmond, but that's only 0.75-miles around.

It makes it very hard for prognosticators like myself to figure out what's going to happen, but my fantasy NASCAR team is ranked in the 98th percentile on Yahoo! right now (Toot!  Toot!  That's me sounding my own horn).  Hopefully, we can work together to figure out a successful strategy for the late season fantasy roster on this mystery course.

*In case you're new to this segment, check out my first fantasy post on how the system works.

Strategy: Since we don't have any stats to go on for the "new" Phoenix, the old ones should give some insight into what to expect.  As I said, Richmond could also be used for some rough comparisons, but the big thing to keep in mind is how the drivers are doing right now.  Sometimes, we, and I'm referring to myself, lose track of that concept when I start analyzing stats from a specific track.

A-List

Start

#14 Tony Stewart - He's won four of the last eight races and is right in the thick of a championship battle.  Why doubt him now?

#48 JImmie Johnson - Before the repaving, "Five-Time" (we can't call him that much longer) dominated Phoenix.  He averaged an insane 4.8 finish!  You'd need to do a lot of reconfiguring to knock that back down to normal.

#99 Carl Edwards - Edwards' 2011 success was sparked when he snapped a long winless drought in the Phoenix Chase race a year ago.  He's been consistent on any configuration throughout the year with a top-five in half of the races (17 of 34), so there's no reason to expect he won't put up a solid finish on Sunday.

Park

#18 Kyle Busch - Of course! Parking Kyle seems to be trendy these days, so I just wanted to get on board.  In all honesty, he's not half bad at Phoenix, but he always tends to fade as the sun starts setting early in autumn and that's been true to form throughout this year's Chase.

B-List

Start

#4 Kasey Kahne - It's interesting.  His teammate Brian Vickers doesn't have a ride next year and seems to be racing without a care in the world.  Kahne, on the other hand, looks like a guy fighting for a job, even though he's locked in with Hendrick Motorsports for 2012.  He has four top-fives in the last six starts.

#31 Jeff Burton - He led late at Texas last week, but lost out on a Hail Mary of a fuel mileage gamble (when you run out with five laps left, you definitely weren't as close as you thought).  The final results scored him in 27th, but it was the third straight week the team showed signs of life.  He has two wins at Phoenix in his career, so he's an option if you're out of allocations on your best B-Listers.

#39 Ryan Newman - Newman doesn't have the best history at this track, but he does have three consecutive top-fives at PIR.  It'd be an understatement to say he hasn't been in his best stretch of the year, but he does seem to like the mile ovals.  If you have some starts left on him, you might as well consider using them.

#56 Martin Truex Jr. - At this point, there's no need to save starts for top drivers.  However, if you've flat out drained the top drivers, then he's a good option.  He's posted three straight top-10s and seems to be consistent enough from week-to-week to roll out there.  Given, it's a consistent mediocrity, but it could be worse!

Park

#2 Brad Keselowski - This is going to be one of those do as I say, not as I do moments.  I have two Keselowski starts left and I feel obligated to use both of them.  However, he's faded recently and never done better than 15th at Phoenix, so if you only have one start left, save it for next week.

#20 Joey Logano - His troubles continued when his engine blew up last weekend and it's now been 13 races since Logano finished in the top-10.  Even if you've taxed your top B-Listers, he's not an option.

C-List

Start

#6 David Ragan - I said last week that Ragan needed to get back on track before I recommended him, and he posted a 12th.  You can't take his starts to the bank, so you better use 'em if you got 'em.

#27 Paul Menard - He's only finished worse than 20th once since the Chase started, so he's the most consistent of the C-List.  I'd recommend using him over Ragan, if you have that luxury (I don't).

Park

#78 Regan Smith - MInd you, if you don't have any Ragan or Menard starts left then don't hesitate on the No. 78, but he's fallen off.  His upside is the only thing that makes him better than most of the other C-Listers, like David Gilliland, Casey Mears or Dave Blaney, that do more than start-and-park but don't contend often for the lead.  Smith's better than them, but more or less an afterthought at this point.

My Preliminary Roster

A - EDWARDS (2), Johnson (1)

B - BOWYER (2), KESELOWSKI (2), Newman (1), Truex Jr. (6)

C - RAGAN (1), Smith (1)

*Number in parenthesis are allocations remaining.

Drivers with zero allocations remaining: Earnhardt Jr. (B), Kahne (B), Menard (C).

-JS