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Edwards takes some of the Phoenix spotlight by dominating every practice

The lead story coming into this week’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Race at Phoenix centers on this year’s Chase for the Championship being the most exciting ever and possibly being the closest championship run since 1992. More on that below, but the first topic to be discussed is Carl Edwards, who put a wide distance between himself and the other 42 drivers as the clear cut favorite to win Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500K.
The performance Edwards displayed in Friday’s and Saturday’s practice sessions may get overshadowed somewhat because of all the hoopla of the Chase, and perhaps rightly so. But in Las Vegas, where legal betting action is taken, Edwards’ performance stands out more than any other driver has before a race all season. Not only is Edwards the pole-sitter for Sunday’s race, but he was fastest by a large margin over every other driver in all three practice sessions. He was fastest in every single lap time as well as consecutive five- and 10-lap average speeds.
On Monday, the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book had Edwards posted at 20-to-1 odds. When the adjusted odds are released Saturday evening, the odds are sure to be a small fraction of that with Edwards becoming the favorite. Just to give an idea of how far he’ll drop, Jimmie Johnson was the pre-race 7-to-2 favorite. Because of dominating every facet of practice and the race being relatively short with only 312 laps, Edwards should be posted in the range of what Johnson’s original price was.
There are a few things going against Edwards this week, beginning with a lack of winning. It’s hard for a sports book to make a driver a favorite that hasn’t won a race in almost two years. Edwards has had past success at Phoenix, but doesn’t own a win in 12 starts. When he won nine races in his magical year of 2008, the best he could do at Phoenix was tie his career best with two fourth-place finishes. However, he never had a car handle as well as the one he has this week, a car that had modest success with a sixth-place finish at Kansas.
As for the hoopla of the Chase, it’s never been better in NASCAR. Not only do we have three drivers with two races to go separated by a mere 59 points, we have trash-talking and mind games being played by one of the teams. Denny Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford, made several statements regarding his team’s superiority following the Texas race they won last week, which elevated them to first in points. The comments have served as bulletin board material all week for Jimmie Johnson’s team, which will look to make Ford eat his words.
The switch of pit crews from Johnson’s and Jeff Gordon’s teams may help Johnson a little, but the real concern for Johnson’s team should be its lack of having a typical Johnson-like car in practice at Phoenix. Following Saturday’s final practices, where he could only muster seventh best, Johnson doesn’t have the look of a winner. It’s very surprising, too, because the car he’s using won at Phoenix in this race last year and also won at New Hampshire in June.
Hamlin is looking to continue his personal goal of duplicating 2009 down the stretch. He’s already bettered Texas; now he has to do better than third this week and win at Miami. His chances are greatly enhanced because of using his winning chassis from September’s Richmond race. During practices, Hamlin was fifth best in happy hour with good average speeds.
The only negative I could see with Hamlin’s chances down the stretch is the target put on the team by his crew chief. That type of cocky attitude usually backfires in other sports and is seldom seen from upper-echelon NASCAR teams, especially with stakes so high. Ford’s boss, Joe Gibbs, would have never given his opponents any added incentive like that before a big game whiling coaching the Redskins.
Kevin Harvick swept the 2006 season at Phoenix and will be using his third-place car from Martinsville. His goal is to finish ahead of Johnson and Hamlin this week and take one more shot at it all in Miami next week. He was just behind Edwards in average speeds during happy hour and had the fifth-fastest single lap.  
The one driver who could give Edwards a run for the Vegas money this week is Gordon, who has gone almost as long as Edwards without winning. The only category Edwards didn’t dominate over the weekend of practices was overall average speeds during happy hour, where Gordon came in tops. Gordon probably should have won this race in the spring, but got beat on the final restart by Ryan Newman.
Newman had a good practice as well, but he is in the danger zone for all bettors and fantasy players because he’s on "baby watch." His wife is expected to give birth at any time and Ron Hornaday is on standby should Newman leave. The uncertainty of Newman makes him tough to bet this week because if his wife goes into labor, Newman is gone whether the race has started or not.
On a side note, new father and Las Vegas native Brendan Gaughan will make his first Cup start since 2005 when he drives the No. 71 car on Sunday. The car doesn’t have much of a chance to finish within the top 20, but it is good to see such a likable guys as Gaughan given the opportunity to show his talents on the highest level. The car will be sponsored by the South Point Hotel and Casino, which is owned by his father, Michael Gaughan.
There are two live long shots to watch this week based on solid practices. A.J. Allmendinger is 75-to-1 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 60-to-1 at the Hilton sports book. Earnhardt Jr. had a great run at New Hampshire with a fourth place and is using the same car this week on a track that runs very similar. 
Roberts Weekly Driver Ratings
Each week I will provide an analysis of my top rated drivers on how well they will do in the race based on the following criteria:
• Practice sessions leading up to the weekend’s Sprint Cup race
• Chassis information on what was brought to each track by each team, good or bad
• Driver tendencies at certain tracks
• Recent and overall histories for each driver at each track
• Decipher poor past results with what really happened, good car — or bad luck?
These final ratings should help assist in final betting strategies with the Las Vegas books or match-up and prop plays, as well as help in NASCAR fantasy leagues.
Micah Roberts’ Top 10 Driver Ratings
Kobalt Tools 500K
Phoenix International Raceway
Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010 — 12:19 p.m. (PDT)

Rating   Driver                Odds   Practice 1  Qualifying   Practice 2   Practice 3
1. Carl Edwards              20/1         1st               1st               1st                1st
Career average finish of 12.8 in 12 starts with a best of fourth-place three times.
2. Jeff Gordon                  15/1        18th            22nd             2nd               3rd
2007 winner with average finish of 10.4 in 23 starts; best average speed during happy hour.
3. Kevin Harvick              12/1         9th              29th            10th               5th
Swept both 2006 races and finished 13th in spring; using third-place Martinsville chassis.
4. Denny Hamlin              9/2         27th             17th             14th              4th
Third-place finisher in four Phoenix races; using winning Richmond chassis from September.
5. Jimmie Johnson           7/2         12th             21st             17th               7th
Four-time winner; using chassis that won this race last season and New Hampshire in June.
6. Kurt Busch                   15/1          7th               3rd              3rd               34th
2005 winner with 13.5 average finish in 15 starts; using winning Atlanta chassis from March.
7. Matt Kenseth                25/1        16th             15th              4th               24th
2002 winner finished sixth in the spring; using car that led 26 laps to finish seventh at Kansas.
8. Greg Biffle                    20/1         26th              4th               9th               10th
Two-time runner-up with last top-five finish in spring of 2009; using winning chassis from Kansas.
9. Kyle Busch                    4/1           4th                7th              20th             32nd
2005 winner for his only Phoenix top-five in 11 starts; using runner-up Charlotte car from October.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.     60/1        22nd            31st               7th               2nd       
Two-time winner; great practices using fourth-place New Hampshire chassis from September.
Note: The September races at Richmond and New Hampshire are great barometers to use for Phoenix this week because of the similarities in distance and banking at each. The set-up notes from those teams that were successful are relatively fresh and still applicable.
Odds courtesy of the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book.
Micah Roberts, a former race and sports book director, has been setting NASCAR lines in Las Vegas since 1995. He writes for multiple publications covering all sports. He can be reached at MM.Roberts7@gmail.com.
DENNY HAMLIN’S CREW CHIEF MIKE FORD ON JOHNSON AND THE NO. 48 TEAM FOLLOWING HAMLIN’S TEXAS WIN: "If they wanted to win a championship … they just took their team out of it. Their team got them to this point (six wins) … and they pulled them out. So this is more about trying to win a championship for the company, and not the team. We saw them studying us real hard, and when you put your focus on watching other people, you make mistakes. That means they are chasing us. And they made mistakes in doing so. To be aggressive and get all we can. Guys have tiptoed around them (Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson) … you’ve watched them play mind game. But I’m completely immune to that. I’ll be right in their face saying it doesn’t matter. I think our race team is better than their race team. And I’m not going to tiptoe around them. I’m going to do what it’s to going to require for us to win a championship … not that I’m playing dirty, but take what’s ousr. I’m not afraid to go toes to toe with them."
JIMMIE JOHNSON ON WHETHER IT WAS SMART FOR MIKE FORD TO MAKE COMMENTS ABOUT HIS TEAM: “I don’t know. The reason that I’m looking at the 11 (Denny Hamlin) is that he’s the one that’s ahead of us. When we were leading, I was looking back at both of them closely. I know Kevin’s (Harvick) right there, I guess. With the 11 taking the points lead and all and all that’s been made of it, it’s been very easy just to talk about the 11 car, but the 29 is there and serious. Again, I expected comments to be made after the 11 won in Texas. Believe me; we have used those comments as motivation inside Hendrick Motorsports. There’s been plenty of references to the comments made. Guys are thinking about it during their sets in the gym, when they’re changing tires on pit stops, there have been emails internally — it’s been a great motivational tool. We certainly hope to show it this weekend.”

JIMMIE JOHNSON ON HOW IT FEELS TO BE IN SECOND PLACE IN POINTS?: “It sucks. I don’t want to be there. Every year feels different and it does feel different being here this late in the game. We all know how special a run we’ve been on and how rare it is in sports, period. In my mind, as the years have gone by, I have really tried not to get used to it. I’ve always tried to be fearful of not being there and I don’t know if it’s just getting myself prepared for the day there’s a really big challenge or what, but I’m not as panicked as people may think. I think a lot of it boils down to the fact that I know how good my race team is. I know how good we’re going to do here and in Homestead and I’m just trying not to over think it and just go out there and do my job.”
KEVIN HARVICK ON WHY MIKE FORD MADE THE COMMENTS HE DID FOLLOWING THE RACE AT TEXAS?: “The only good thing that comes from being cocky like that is you better win because if you don’t, you’re going to have to answer a lot of questions about your comments when you get done. You create a lot more work than what you see initially when you say those things, if it all doesn’t go your way. I think when you’re trying to intimidate the guy who’s won four championships in a row, I think you might need to go rethink your strategy and just go out and worry about racing because it’s not really something that was probably necessary. He got all over Denny (Hamlin) at Dover for saying the things that he did about RCR (Richard Childress Racing) and the organization and how disruptive their team, in my opinion all the things that he said seem to be a disruption to his team and now Denny is going to have to come in here and answer all those questions.”
compiled by Mike Forde
NASCAR Media Services
·         Construction was completed in January 1964.The facility consisted of a one-mile oval and a 2.5-mile road course.
·         Alan Kulwicki won the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix on Nov. 6, 1988.
·         The first spring race was held on April 23, 2005 and also the first night race, which was won by Kurt Busch.
·         There have been 28 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Phoenix International Raceway, one per season from 1988-2004 and two each season since.
·         Geoffrey Bodine won the first pole in 1988.
·         There have been 18 different pole winners, led by Ryan Newman with four.
·         Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon are the only drivers to win consecutive poles. Newman won three straight (2002-04), while Gordon won the fall of 2006 and spring of 2007.
·         There have been 20 different race winners, led by Jimmie Johnson, with four. Johnson has won four of the last six races. Mark Martin (spring 2009) and Ryan Newman (spring 2010) won the other races in that span.
·         The race has been won from the pole three times: Jeff Gordon (spring 2007), Jimmie Johnson (fall 2008) andMark Martin (spring 2009).
·         The race has been won from a top-10 starting position in 14 of 28 events.
·         Denny Hamlin won his first career pole in November 2005. AJ Allmendinger won his first career pole earlier this season.
·         Ricky Rudd won the 1995 race from the 29th-place starting position, the furthest back a race winner has started.
·         Mark Martin has 12 top-five finishes, more than any other driver. Martin (8.7) and Jimmie Johnson (4.9) are the only active drivers who average a top-10 finish.
·         Three of the last four races have ended with a margin of victory under one second.
·         Two perfect Driver Ratings of 150.0 have been recorded at Phoenix. Kurt Busch did it with his win in April of 2005, and Kevin Harvick did it in November of 2006.
Phoenix International Raceway Data
Race: 35 of 36 (11-14-10)
Track Size: 1 mile
·     Banking/1 and 2: 11 degrees
·     Banking/3 and 4: 9 degrees
·     Banking/Frontstretch: 3 degrees
·     Banking/Backstretch: 9 degrees
·     Frontstretch: 1,179 feet
·     Backstretch: 1,551 feet

Driver Rating at Phoenix
Jimmie Johnson            123.7
Mark Martin                   102.3
Jeff Gordon                  101.1
Kurt Busch                    98.7
Carl Edwards                98.6
Greg Biffle                    96.2
Tony Stewart                 96.2
Denny Hamlin                95.2
Kyle Busch                   94.8
Kevin Harvick                94.6
Note: Driver Rating compiled from 2005-10 races (11 total) at Phoenix.
Qualifying/Race Data
2009 pole winner: Martin Truex Jr. (135.120 mph, 26.643 seconds)
2009 race winner: Jimmie Johnson (110.486 mph, 11-15-09)
Track qualifying record: Ryan Newman (135.854 mph, 26.499 seconds, 11-5-04)
Track race record: Tony Stewart (118.132 mph, 11-7-99)
Pit Window: Approximately 70-78 laps, based on fuel mileage.
NASCAR in Arizona
·         There have been 33 NASCAR Sprint Cup races in Arizona.
·         30 drivers in NASCAR national series history have their home state recorded as Arizona.
·         There have been no race winners from Arizona in NASCAR’s three national series.


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