And Jimmie Johnson headlines the list of elite performers at Phoenix in a big way, having won four of the last five races at the one-mile track. The four-time defending champ, had even gaudier stats at Martinsville, but never showed much muscle on race day. Safely in the points lead and already with three wins this year, is the No. 48 team using tracks that appear again in the Chase as test sessions? If so, better fantasy picks are available, but Johnson is still a likely lock for a top 10 finish in the Subway Fresh Fit 600.
Despite running very well at Phoenix the last few years, Denny Hamlin might not be the safest bet this time around. His recent ACL surgery and possible replacement in the driver's seat by Casey Mears make him a fantasy no-no.
Here are some other driver options to help you in your fantasy standings Saturday night.
Considered a dark horse to win in most circles, Jeff Burton has been very consistent this season, after a less than stellar 2009. Leading late two weeks ago at Martinsville before a cut tire ruined his run, Burton appears ready to break into winning territory. Burton has shown more aggression this season and could display that tenacity at Phoenix, a track where he drove his car nearly sideways through the corners while chasing down eventual winner Jimmie Johnson last fall. If bad luck evades Burton, expect a good showing from the No. 31 Caterpillar team Saturday.
By the numbers: Burton has two wins at Phoenix, four top 10s in the last five races, and finished 2nd there last October.
The No. 48 team's biggest rival is the pilot of the Blue Deuce. Busch has led more than twice as many laps this season as Johnson, but has two less wins to show for his efforts. Winning the 2005 Subway Fresh Fit 600 as a driver for Roush Racing, Busch appears as much, if not more, determined than the rest of the Sprint Cup field to crush Johnson's title hopes. And sometimes that drive is enough to take a team to the front. Busch, by the way, is the only driver in the top 12 in points to score a win so far this year besides Johnson.
By the numbers: Busch has three top 10s in the last five Phoenix races and the 3rd most points of all drivers in that span.
Martin Truex Jr.
This is your best fantasy bet if you need a lower-budget driver for your lineup. Truex did a great job of going absolutely unnoticed his last two years in the No. 8 Chevy, but his move to Michael Waltrip Racing has added some pep to both his and crew chief Pat Tryson's stride. Truex has extra reason to smile at Phoenix, where he won the pole last fall and finished fifth. Much like Burton, if Truex can avoid the bad luck that has derailed the No. 56 NAPA Toyota in a couple of races this year, he is a solid lock for at least a top 10 finish, and an outside candidate for his 2nd career Sprint Cup Series win.
By the numbers: After scoring no top 10s in his first three races in Phoenix, he has four top 10s in the last five races and a 6th place average finish in that stretch.
The No. 5 Chevy was the class of the field at last spring's Phoenix race, as Mark Martin scored his first of five wins 2009. Off to the same slow start this year as he was at this time last year, Martin may be another driver ready to bust through with his maiden 2010 victory. Martin's track record at Phoenix is impressive: only one finish outside the top 20 in 26 career starts -- and that was at the debut race there in 1988!
By the numbers: Despite skipping the 2007 Phoenix race, Martin has the fourth most points in the last five races held there, based on the strength of three top 5s.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior is becoming a popular pick to take the checkers among analysts lately, as his winless drought has stretched to almost two years and his performance in the No. 88 seems to be turning around (he is 10th in the points). Placing Earnhardt on your fantasy slate may be more than a trendy idea for the next three weeks, as he historically runs well and has won at Phoenix, Texas and Talladega. Seeing his chemistry with crew chief Lance McGrew age like a fine wine is a good sign that the Amp Energy team may be ready to contend again as the summer rolls around.
By the numbers: Earnhardt Jr. has won twice at Phoenix and scored top 10s at both races in 2008. He also led 63 laps before fading to 31st last April.
Greg Biffle is the only remaining driver to score top 10s in all six races this year and he sits a quiet 2nd in points, 14 markers behind Johnson. The Biff and the No. 16 Roush Fenway Ford team do not seemed poised for victory yet, but their consistent runs at a variety of tracks are sharpening their iron for later in the season when the battle for the Chase intensifies. Biffle has never won at Phoenix, but has seen his results generally improve over his eight year Cup career. Pencil-in Biffle as another moderately-priced driver, who will likely provide a good bang for your fantasy buck.
By the numbers: Biffle has not finished outside the top 15 in almost three years at Phoenix, but also has only led seven laps there since 2006.
Who'll win? Kurt Busch
Busch is fightin' mad and spittin' nails after missing an almost sure win at Martinsville because of pit strategy, and watching Johnson claim the crown at Bristol (a track Busch used to own). Expect to see the Miller Lite Dodge up front early, often, and (when it matters most) late in Saturday night's race.
Next up: The Cup Series cuts across the desert to Texas Motor Speedway, where everything is bigger...except Jimmie Johnson's win total, every driver hopes.
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