Race Weekend Central

Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans: How to Pick Your Team Wisely in NASCAR’s Penultimate Race

The penultimate race of the NASCAR season takes place this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. Unfortunately for our loyal readers, Bryan Davis Keith has been knocked out of commission by the tropical depression that is beating up the North Carolina coast tonight, so Mike has been left to enlighten the gaming world alone.

Phoenix is the last short track on the schedule – assuming you consider a 1-mile track a short track. The body of work for the season has been all but completed for the short tracks and looking at the body of work created by the top drivers will be a good portent of what’s going to happen this weekend. Some drivers have excelled at intermediates, while others work their best magic on the short tracks. The selections from our expert will certainly be loaded with the drivers who’ve shown their best on short tracks.

Jimmie Johnson is determined to rebound from a bad week while Carl is hoping to dominate again and continue to close the points margin on Johnson. Meanwhile, the rest of Hendrick and Roush Fenway look to establish their dominance and seal the manufacturers’ championship for their make, while the non-Chase crowd is still pushing to continue the trend of having at least one Chase race won by a non-Chase qualifier every year since its inception. Also, expect to see some aggressive moves by those drivers who are not employed for next year.

Read this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans to see which drivers will score the most points and which ones will be visiting Checker Auto Parts after the race.

Mike’s Race Rewind

Last year, Johnson completed his four-race rampage on the way to the Sprint Cup championship when he took the checkered flag at the end of the Checker Auto Parts 500k. Johnson led twice during the race for a total of 53 laps, including the last 23. Carl Edwards qualified on the pole and led 87 of the first 125 laps, but was knocked out of the race with an engine failure. Matt Kenseth led the most laps during the event, taking the point three different times for 93 laps.

At the end of the day, Greg Biffle followed Johnson to the line just ahead of Kenseth. Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five, with Kevin Harvick in sixth and Martin Truex Jr. who led 72 laps on the day, seventh. The top 10 was completed by Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon. Aside from the five laps that were led by Newman and Reed Sorenson, Kenseth, Edwards, Truex and Johnson led all of the laps of the race.

Mike’s Keys to the Race

PIR is a track with a personality all its own that forces teams to compromise to get the most out of her. The first and second turns have a much tighter radius than turns 3 and 4. There is also a dogleg in the middle of the backstretch that is almost enough of a change of direction to be considered a turn as well. Teams must decide which end of the track they want to be their best and set their car appropriately.

Most teams will lean towards 3 and 4 because that will give them the most speed on the front straight, where they can make passes before entering turn 1. However, some teams will set up for 1 and 2 because they feel the speed advantage going through the dogleg on the backstretch can make passing into turn 3 easy. The teams that will succeed this weekend will make the choice that allows them to pass more cars than anyone else.

Mike’s Picks

Crank ‘Em Up

Johnson had a weekend he’d really rather forget last week in Texas. While finishing 15th might not be bad for quite a few of the teams in the garage area, it is completely unacceptable for the two-time champ that is on the verge of number three. Johnson lost a large chunk of points to Edwards (77 points) last week and wants to rebound before heading into the final race of the season, where he doesn’t have the best average finish.

Johnson has won the last two races at Phoenix, even though the spring race was a fuel-mileage gamble. Johnson can walk away from Phoenix with the ultimate trophy, if he can finish far enough ahead of Edwards to leave with a 192-point lead. If he leads by 162, all he has to do is start Homestead to be the champ. Expect to see the No. 48 team put a stranglehold on things this weekend.

Burton has long been a strong performer at Phoenix. He’s won twice at the track and not finished outside of the top 15 since 1996. His average finish since 1998 is 7.6, third best among active drivers at the track. He’s struggled since his win at Charlotte, having not finished in the top 10 in the last three races, but Richard Childress Racing does well on the flat track in the desert and should bet him back in the hunt for a victory.

Sit ‘Em Down

Jamie McMurray has been on quite a roll of late, with three top-10 finishes in four races. Gamers should not be sucked in by this success, because McMurray has not strung together three straight top-10 finishes all year, and his history at Phoenix is not good. His average finish is 23.6 and he has never had a top-10 finish at the track. McMurray has probably saved his job, and with Donnie Wingo heading back to the fold, he’s got the pressure off just in time to post a stinker of a finish. Leave him on the bench this weekend.

David Ragan has been a force on intermediate and superspeedway tracks this season, but he’s only had marginal success on short tracks. His history at Phoenix does not bode well for him either. His average finish in the desert is 33.3, and his average finish on short tracks this year is 18.22 and that includes a 13th at Martinsville. Ragan could post a good finish this weekend, but could just as easily end up in the 30s. Avoid putting him on your roster this weekend.

Roll the Dice:

Mark Martin is making one last start on his limited schedule before going back to full-time racing for Hendrick next season. Martin has the fourth-best average finish on the track since 1998, and was fifth in the race this spring. DEI, as an organization has been strong at Phoenix as well, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. scoring two wins for the company at the track, and Truex running very strong there last year. Assuming you can still pick Martin up for a song, he’s certainly worth a roll of the dice this weekend.

Bryan’s Picks (as Mike thinks he would have done them)

Crank ‘Em Up

Edwards. Hey, Mike picked him and won two weeks in a row, its my turn.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Carl Edwards and Co. Driving with Nothing to Lose

Tony Stewart has two finishes out of the top 15 in his entire history at Phoenix in stock cars. He also had success at the track in open-wheel cars. Running on a short track gives the driver more input than the intermediates and superspeedways. While may people think Stewart is just mailing it in on the way to moving over to his own team, don’t underestimate the pride he has. He’s a racer and winning is all that matters. He’ll be in the top 10 and could very well win this weekend.

Sit ‘Em Down

Elliott Sadler is still not good at Phoenix. He’s had a top-10 finish at the track, but that was a 10th that occurred 10 races ago. Since then he has a couple of 11th-place finishes, but hasn’t been better than 17th in the last five races. Sadler is in the midst of his late-season swoon, and will most likely continue it this weekend. Keep him on the bench for the foreseeable future.

Travis Kvapil continues to stink it up for me when I sit him, so I’m going to do it again. Expect to see Kvapil come home somewhere near his average finish at Phoenix, which is 24.6. He’s only got one finish in the top 10 and the rest of them have been 21st or worse. Kvapil’s team did some great work early in the year, but right now he’s searching to get that magic back. Don’t expect anything special from Kvapil this weekend.

Roll the Dice

Truex finished in the top 10 at Phoenix the last two times he raced there in Cup. His season has been a roller coaster but over the last couple of years, he’s always finished well at the end of the year. Expect to see the DEI setup give Truex a little help and anticipate him bringing home another solid top-10 run this weekend.

Trash Talk

Has been suspended this week due to Bryan’s computer/weather issues. Come back next week to hear Mike make incredible amounts of fun of him due to the backwoods Internet Service Provider he utilizes to get signal into his double-wide.


The following are the guidelines that Bryan and Mike follow in making their picks each week: Crank ‘Em Up drivers can be in any position in the driver standings, Sit ‘Em Down drivers must be in the current top 25 of the driver standings and Roll the Dice drivers can not be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.


Crank – 13.4
Sit – 21.0
Roll – 21.0


Crank – 10.6
Sit – 21.3
Roll – 17.6

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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