Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR

Advantage Blue Deuce

Track position is going to be a key element as to who visits victory lane at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday afternoon; the newly reconfigured track really has just one lane and passing will be difficult. Also, add into the mix that the tires aren’t falling off at all, and we have a recipe for a potentially great race. Qualifying well is the first step in having the track position advantage, and Kyle Busch got off in the right direction on Friday when he won the pole for the Advocare 500. The full starting lineup can be found by clicking here. Also, in cased you missed practice or want to review the data, you can click here to view my Average Practice Speeds post for this weekend.

My Probable Yahoo! Roster: Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex, Jr., Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola
My Probable Yahoo! Bench: Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Joey Logano, Sam Hornish, Jr.

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Final Top Fifteen Ranking For The Advocare 500:
*Chase drivers marked in red*

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11. Paul Menard – Starts 7th – Yahoo! B Group
**Risk FactorHigh Risk**

This just may be the weekend for sleepers. Paul Menard isn’t really known for his flat track racing abilities, so when you look at this chart (click here), you may be a little surprised. I was under the impression that Menard is only worth looking at when we get to intermediate tracks, but that’s obviously not the case. At Phoenix specifically, Paul hasn’t been great (23.7 career average finish) but he did end up 9th in this event one year ago. I think this team gets an added boost when Slugger Labbe is on top of the pit box, and he’s definitely found a way to get speed out of this #27 Chevrolet this weekend. Menard was near the top of the overall average speed chart on Saturday and inside the top 10 in both practice sessions when it came to ten-lap average. There’s some risk there but looking purely at the practice speeds of the weekend, I think Paul could challenge for a top 10 on Sunday. It also doesn’t hurt that he starts 7th.

12. Aric Almirola – Starts 5th – Yahoo! C Group
**Risk FactorHigh Risk**

Here’s another driver that has been getting fast car after fast car every week as of late. Almirola was 12th here back in March and I think he has a pretty good shot at backing that up on Sunday. In addition to qualifying 5th, Aric was inside the top 5 on the overall average speed chart and laid down the 4th-fastest lap in Happy Hour. In that same session, the #43 Ford was 12th in ten-lap average. The one thing that you have to worry about with picking Almirola this weekend is that he hasn’t been very good on the flat tracks this season with the exception of the first Phoenix race. It’s a high risk pick for sure but I like what this team is doing as of late and it’s not like the car has been slow this weekend.

13. Ryan Newman – Starts 12th – Yahoo! B Group
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**

Newman gets this ranking based purely on the fact that he qualified 12th and that flat tracks tend to be his strong suit. He’s been disappointing all season long, so keep that in mind, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that happened once again on Sunday. I never really saw much speed out of the #39, but this team tends to find it as the race goes on. Newman was 10th in ten-lap average during the first practice session on Saturday and 16th on that same chart in Happy Hour. On the plus side, The Rocketman has four top 5s in the last five Phoenix events, and that includes his win here in 2010. I just don’t see Newman ever coming close to the top 5 on Sunday, though.

14. Kurt Busch – Starts 6th – Yahoo! B Group
**Risk FactorHigh Risk**

It was briefly mentioned during practice that the #78 Chevrolet has some speed this week, but what’s getting majorly overlooked is the fact that Kurt Busch finished 8th with this car last week in Texas. I still view him as a no-talent hothead who’s far past the little prime he did have, but Kurt is doing a good job at changing my mind. First he went out and qualified 6th on Friday. Not overly impressive, anybody can go out and lay down a fast lap. Danica qualified 14th in the Nationwide race today, just for comparison. But then once the two practice sessions on Saturday were overwith, one thing was clear: the #78 has some speed; Kurt ended up 9th on the overall average speed chart and was 10th in ten-lap average during Happy Hour. I think this team could pull off an upset top 10 on Sunday (a top 15 is more likely) but that’s assuming that Busch doesn’t self-implode and destroy what little chemistry this team has put together. It’s high risk and still too risky to pick Kurt Busch right now, in my opinion.

15. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Starts 23rd – Yahoo! B Group
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**

This #15 ranking could go to a number of drivers, but I used overall average speed for a tiebreaker and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won that battle. Phoenix isn’t really Dale’s strong suit, but he does have four finishes of 14th or better in the last five events at the track. He’ll start the Advocare 500 in 23rd-place but overcoming a bad qualifying effort is something that this team has been used to doing all season. I had much higher hopes for the #88 coming into this weekend but I still like NASCAR’s favorite driver to get a solid top 15 on Sunday. The only thing that’s a bit concerning is the fact that Junior was 23rd out of 26 cars in terms of ten-lap average during Happy Hour.

Those To Avoid For The Advocare 500:

Jeff Burton – It’s not a good sign when a driver wrecks both the primary and the backup cars before the race even starts. Such is the case with Jeff Burton, whom I have no idea why Richard Childress is even considering let stay for the 2013 season, but that’s a whole other topic. Burton was 4th in this event one season ago but this team would probably feel like they won if they pulled off a 24th this time around.

Mark Martin – This isn’t an “avoid like the plague” alert, but I have one concern with picking the #55 on Sunday. Martin ranked 12th  on the overall average speed chart for Saturday, but he only ran 67 laps in the two practice sessions combined. Not only is this surprising out of Mark, but it also points to one thing: this team is searching for speed. Chances are they’ll find it at some point during the race on Sunday, but as the season dwindles down I tend to take the least amount of risks as possible. I just think that there are other cars that are faster than the #55 this weekend, although they all too have risks of their own.

Kevin Harvick – With the news breaking of Kevin Harvick moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, that surrounds this team with one simple thing: unneeded attention. Whether this will truly affect them in the race is yet to be seen, but it’s safe to say that the #29 crew has struggled this weekend thus far. In the two practice sessions on Saturday, Harvick–similar to Mark Martin–ran a combined 47 laps. For comparison, Kyle Busch ran at least 50 in each of the two sessions. This team is searching to say the least, and Kevin didn’t end up on either ten-lap average chart, which is a huge red flag. He starts 19th on Sunday and that’s the nail in the coffin. Harvick has three top 10s in the last four Phoenix races but I just don’t see this team coming anywhere close to that on Sunday.