Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Where There’s Smoke,
There’s Fire

Judging by Saturday’s qualifying session, the Kobalt Tools 500 definitely has the potential to be a wreck-fest, maybe even worse than the one we had at this track in February. Car after car was sliding around this newly configured Phoenix International Raceway, but it was Matt Kenseth who got the pole for Sunday’s event. A.J. Allmendinger will start the race from the outside pole, and the entire lineup can be viewed by clicking here. As you probably know by now, not many people (including the drivers themselves) know what to expect on Sunday. I think practice will be majorly important, and in case you missed my Practice Breakdown, or would simply like to view it again, you can by clicking here. Also, in my Preview from Wednesday morning (located here if you would like to read it), I made a case for Indianpolis comparing to this new track, while Ryan thinks it’s going to be more like Richmond (his reasoning here). If you have any questions or would like my opinion, you can leave a comment on here, but there’s a chance I won’t see it. E-mails go directly to my phone, , so feel free to shoot me a message and I’ll be sure to get back with you.

Follow @FanNASCARPredic

Breaking Down The Chasers:

Carl Edwards – I’m going to keep bringing up this stat for the last two races unless it is broken: Carl Edwards hasn’t finished worse than 11th since Michigan in August, and that won’t change this weekend. He starts 9th, right behind his buddy, and should stay in the top 10 for most of the race. As usual, Carl didn’t practice a whole bunch in Happy Hour, but he still ran a total of 98 laps on Friday and ended up 3rd on the average speed chart. He didn’t run ten consecutive laps in Happy Hour, but I’m not too worried about that because it is Carl Edwards. He hasn’t been great on the flat tracks this season (just two top 10s in the six races), but this team and driver have been phenomenal in the Chase this year, and Cousin Carl will be trying his hardest to stay right on Smoke’s bumper for the entire 500 kilometers on Sunday.

Tony Stewart – What do you know, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart will start Sunday’s race in 9th and 8th, respectively, and I expect the entire race for them to be nose-to-tail…just like last week in Texas. “Smoke” is my pick to win the Kobalt Tools 500, though. He had the best car in practice on Friday and looked like he could pass just about anyone, which is surprising because this track only has one lane now. His car looked that good. He loves when the tracks are slippery, and this new Phoenix should be on Sunday. Stewart ended up 10th on the overall average speed chart (usually doesn’t show much in practice), and had the third-best ten-lap average. This race has the potential to be dominated by the #14 crew, just like last week’s. Remember who has the best average finish at Indianapolis? Where there’s smoke, there’s fire….

Kevin Harvick – Harvick will start Sunday’s race in 27th, so he’s going to have some cars to pass, but really that has been his ‘thing’ for this entire season. However, I’m not seeing a whole bunch of upside in taking Harvick on Sunday. In other words, there are better picks. Kevin had the 10th-best ten-lap average in Happy Hour, though, and ranked 4th on the overall speed chart for the practices on Friday. If only he qualified better… Harvick posted top 5s in the first two flat track races this season but in the four events after, his best finish has been 11th (at Indianapolis). I like “Happy” for an early teens finish with a shot at a top 10.

Matt Kenseth – You know me and what I say by now: when Matt Kenseth starts on the pole, he has a great car and will probably challenge for the win. No difference this week. The #17 Ford looked pretty sporty in practice, ending up 2nd on the ten-lap average chart in Happy Hour and 6th on the overall average speed chart, which doesn’t happen often for Kenseth. He has been consistently average on the flat tracks this season (six races, three top 10s, no finish worse than 20th), but I’m really liking his chances this weekend. Heck, you never know: if something happens to Stewart and Edwards, Kenseth could be right in the thick of the championship battle next week in Homestead.

Brad Keselowski – I still have faith in Brad Keselowski, and I’m not ready to jump off the bandwagon. I understand if other people do, but I still think this team is capable of getting a couple more solid finishes this season. Keselowski was 11th on the overall average speed chart but didn’t manage to make either of the ten-lap average charts in the two practice sessions on Friday. His one-lap speeds from those practices make it look like BK will be a 20th-place car or so on Sunday, but this team is real good at working on the car during the race and setting it up for the end. Keselowski has top 10s in the last three flat track races and led 17 laps at Indianapolis in July.

Jimmie Johnson – He has ten-straight top 5 finishes at Pheonix, but once the checkered flag waves on Sunday, I think that streak will come to an end for Jimmie Johnson. Don’t get me wrong, I still think he will probably end up top 10 (it is the five-time champ) but I just think that there are other, better cars that will fill the first five slots on Sunday. In the six flat track races in 2011, Johnson has recorded four top 5s along with a 19th (Indianapolis) and an 18th (New Hampshire). He had the 13th-best ten-lap average in Happy Hour and will start 16th. I’m expecting a finish around 8th from the #48 Chevrolet on Sunday.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – He looked like his normal self as of late (junk) during the practice sessions on Friday and Junior will start he Kobalt Tools 500 in 22nd place. I just see no reason to put him on any roster this week. His worst finish in the six flat track races this season has been 17th–and don’t get me wrong, I think Earnhardt will put up a solid teens finish, and maybe a top 10–but you don’t win fantasy championships by picking those guys. He didn’t run ten consecutive laps in either practice session and was 30th (out of 35) on the average speed chart. Wait until Daytona next season to confidently pick NASCAR’s golden boy.

Jeff Gordon – Jeff will start a row behind his Hendrick team-mate, but unfortunately for him it is Dale Earnhardt, Jr., meaning the #24 Chevrolet will roll off the grid in 23rd. Gordon is a very solid flat track racer, though, and if he can’t pass cars to get to the front, him and Alan Gustafson should be able to implement some sort of strategy. Jeff didn’t have blow-you-out-of-the-water speed in practice, but he’s good at Indianapolis and hasn’t finished worse than 11th on the six flat track races this season. He won’t win, but I don’t see Gordon finishing worse than 12th on Sunday.

Kurt Busch – I didn’t realize (until now, obviously) that this team was in such a slump: Kurt hasn’t posted a top 10 finish since his win in Dover on October 2nd! Wow. I don’t expect that to change come Sunday, though. The elder Busch brother will start the Kobalt Tools 500 in 17th, and I think he’ll be around the teens for most of the race, occasionally poking his head in the top 10. He had the 16th-best ten-lap average in Happy Hour and was 18th on the overall average speed chart for the two sessions combined. If him and crew chief Steve Addington implement some strategy towards the end of the race, he might be able to luck himself into a top 10, but I just don’t see the Double Deuce power it’s way up there at all.

Denny Hamlin – He spun his Toyota out in qualifying, so he’s going to start pretty deep (33rd), but even if he looked great there, I would have my doubts about Hamlin. He didn’t impress me at all in practice and his average finish on the flat tracks this season is 17.3. Kind of like his season is going: not being very good in the places where he should be. Denny was 17th out of 22 drivers in terms of ten-lap average in Happy Hour.

Kyle Busch – If anyone on my roster is going to have to start in the back of the field, I would want it to be Kyle Busch. This week, though? I’m not so sure. He blew his engine before making a single lap in the first practice on Friday, and although Rowdy was able to practice for the entire Happy Hour session, laying down the 5th-fastest lap, I don’t think he has the speed to get up to the front. Phoenix is probably going to be a one-lane race track on Sunday, and that’s not good for Kyle. I probably won’t be picking him, but it’s understandable why some fantasy racers would.

Ryan Newman – Newman was 12th on the overall average speed chart, but other than that I see no real reason why he would have a great run on Sunday. He qualified 30th, which will be his worst starting spot on a flat track since 2009, which was surprisingly at the “old Phoenix”. He finished 16th in that race, and I honestly see him finishing right around there on Sunday as well. They had a vibration during practice, and although Ryan said it was “still drive-able,” that’s just another reason for me to leave “The Rocketman” on the bench this weekend.

“Non-Chasers” I Have My Eyes On:

A.J. Allmendinger – Many people I noticed were liking A.J. Allmendinger this weekend, and I’ll be honest: I simply missed it. I’m regretting that now, as I left A.J. off my Yahoo! roster this weekend. Oh, well, life goes on. He’s no sure bet, and it looks like his Ford has the potential to run top 10, but I’m liking The Dinger for a mid-teens finish at best on Sunday. A.J. finished 9th here in February–before the repavement and re-configuration–but hasn’t been that great on the flat tracks for the rest of 2011 (12th at New Hampshire in July has been his best effort). Momentum is nice, though, and Allmendinger has it (four top 11s in the last six Sprint Cup races). Oh yeah, he starts up front (2nd–outside pole), which is good this weekend.

Marcos Ambrose – I’m liking these Petty Fords here lately. If you haven’t read my fantasy stuff before, or don’t pay a whole bunch of attention, I love Marcos Ambrose on short and flat tracks due to his ability to conserve his brakes. He’s starting in 3rd on Sunday, which is good, and has some momentum on his side (four top 11s in the last six Sprint Cup races), including his awesome run at Texas last week (even though he finished 11th). Marcos finished 9th at New Hampshire in July but hasn’t been great–to say the least–on the flat tracks this season. Still, that’s what you get when you put a sleeper on your roster: high risk, high reward. I’ll say Ambrose should be top 15 with a shot at the top 10 once it’s all over on Sunday.

Mark Martin – You can read what I think about this old man in my Preview by clicking here. He starts 4th, was 16th on the overall speed chart, and 14th on the ten-lap average chart in Happy Hour. I expect the #5 Chevrolet to end up top 15 on Sunday, maybe a little better.

Martin Truex, Jr. – Remember my sleeper of the week from my preview? I’m still liking my usually-hated Martin Truex, Jr. this weekend, and he even made it onto my Yahoo! roster. Martin was 2nd on the overall average speed chart on Friday and had the 8th-best ten-lap average during Happy Hour. Add in the fact that he has momentum (three straight top 10s) and he has just one finish outside of the top 16 in six flat track races in 2011. He’ll roll off the grid in 5th on Sunday, and I honestly think Truex will challenge for another top 10 on Sunday.

Jamie McMurray – He qualified pretty well (6th) and looked pretty good in practice (5th-best ten-lap average in Happy Hour), but as you know by now with Jamie Mac, even when it looks like a sure bet for a solid race, nothing is guaranteed. He finished 4th at Indianapolis but doesn’t have a top 20 in any of the other flat track races this season. I’ll say this: it wouldn’t surprise me to see McMurray have a good run on Sunday, but he’s simply too risky for me to even consider for my fantasy rosters.

Kasey Kahne – Can you really go against this guy right now? He’s the hottest driver on the circuit behind Tony Stewart, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down soon. Kahne ran 140 laps of practice on Friday and ended up 8th on the overall average speed chart, and had the best ten-lap average during Happy Hour. Both Red Bull cars look good this weekend in my opinion. Kasey is usually a teens driver on the flat tracks, but I think he has a solid shot at a top 10 on Sunday. I don’t think he’ll visit victory lane, though…not this week, anyway.

Paul Menard – Don’t let the fact that Paul Menard was 5th on the overall average speed chart on Friday fool you: he’s generally up on that chart, even if he has an absolutely terrible car. Paul did have the 11th-best ten-lap average in Happy Hour, though, and will start Sunday’s event in 11th place. He’s been alright on the flat tracks this season (only one finish out of the top 20 in six races), but I’m not expecting much more than a mid-teens finish out of Menard on Sunday.

Quick Recap:

Should challenge for the win: Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth.

My favorite sleepers: Martin Truex, Jr. and Jamie McMurray.

Those I will avoid: Bare with me, the list is long… Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Juan Montoya, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Many will pick ____, but I won’t: Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman.

My Yahoo! starters: Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex, Jr., Paul Menard
My Yahoo! bench: Carl Edwards, Brian Vickers, Ryan Newman, Regan Smith