Pennell’s Picks: Fantasy NASCAR Trends for Phoenix

Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race in Phoenix.

Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race in Phoenix.

by Jay Pennell

Few could have predicted the 2012 season would open with such historic and unforeseen events taking place at Daytona. Rain delays, prime-time racing on a Monday, jet dryer explosions … I‘m surprised the Mayan calendar didn’t signal the end of civilization when the checkered flag fell.

Although the racing was a bit unpredictable and the potential for danger (i.e., bad fantasy days) lurked around every corner, hopefully our advice was able to set you apart from the other fantasy players in your league.

Our “safe bet” pick of the week, Matt Kenseth, took home his second Daytona 500 trophy; our “fantasy favorite,” Dale Earnhardt Jr., made a last-lap move to finish second; and our “darkhorse” pick of Joey Logano scored his first top 10 in The Great American Race with a ninth-place run.

Not a bad start to the long season that is fantasy NASCAR.

With Daytona finally in the rearview mirror, teams were forced to make a quick turnaround this week to get their equipment to Phoenix International Racing for Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500.

While most weekends the teams would use a plethora of notes from past races, Phoenix is still a bit of a wild-card track. Repaved after last February’s event, the Sprint Cup Series returned to a freshly-paved and reconfigured PIR in November.

This weekend, teams will be relying on notes that are only one race old.

Last time the stars of NASCAR hit the newly-configured track in the desert, Kasey Kahne took the win in now-defunct Red Bull Racing equipment. Despite knowing the organization was shutting down and the support from the team was not what it once was, Kahne persevered and was able to save fuel and take the checkered flag out front.

Now driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne enters the 2012 season with long-time crew chief Kenny Francis once again at his side. Finally piloting reliable and consistent race-winning equipment, many are looking at Kahne to have a strong year — even possibly contending for the championship.

The initial part of the season has not gone as planned for Kahne, however. First, he missed his time in the bright lights of the NASCAR Media Tour while serving a jury duty requirement, then he had surgery on his knee before heading to Daytona. He promptly wrecked early in the Budweiser Shootout, was forced to a backup car after sustaining damage in practice for the Daytona 500, and was caught up in one of the many incidents late in the race.

So perhaps there could be no better track for Kahne to visit than the site of his only win in the last 83 races. Kahne has the potential to begin his breakout year this weekend, so keep an eye on him to be a strong play among fantasy ranks.

While Kahne took the checkered flag last November, defending series champion Tony Stewart had the dominant car that day. Leading 160 of the 312 laps, Stewart was on a mission and coming off a strong win in Texas the week prior. In the closing laps he chased down Kahne, title contender Carl Edwards, and took third from Jeff Burton, earning another all-important point in the Chase.

This weekend, Stewart could once again be among the strongest cars in the field.

Heading to the first race of the rest of the season, Stewart’s newly-assembled team — with crew chief Steve Addington and competition director Greg Zipadelli — will show their true colors as they are forced to deal with the short turn-around time. Seasoned and successful veterans in their own right, this week’s performance will show how they are able to cope with adversity in new surroundings and produce results on the track.

Stewart is a driver that gets the job done no matter the circumstances, and I’ve got him as another strong fantasy driver this weekend.

By looking at the numbers and finishing order from last November’s race at Phoenix, one might hesitate to go with the driver I am suggesting for my “safe bet” pick. But for the second week in a row, I think Roush Fenway Racing’s Matt Kenseth will be the safest play to rack up fantasy points.

Is it because he won the season-opening Daytona 500? Not really, although it helps his momentum and the No. 17 team’s confidence early in the year — but that’s not the reason.

Last November, Kenseth sat on the pole and led 49 laps with a strong Ford. Running at the front of the field much of the day, his finish was ruined late when Brian Vickers drove him into the outside wall as a payback from an incident at Martinsville a few weeks before.

This weekend, Kenseth is coming off a strong Speedweeks, plus Vickers is not in the race. I look for him to have yet another solid run Sunday in Phoenix, making for a safe bet when it comes to your fantasy lineup.

Aside from the favorites, I also have my eye on two drivers that are flying a bit under the radar this weekend: AJ Allmendinger and Martin Truex Jr.

Allmendinger enters the weekend off a disappointing start of the season in Daytona. Pumped about his new opportunity with Penske Racing, an incident on pit road ruined his chance to run up front and contend for the win.

Heading to Phoenix, Allmendinger returns to a track he scored a sixth-place finish at in November after starting on the outside of the front row.

Along with his strong run that day, Penske Racing’s No. 22 with Kurt Busch had a great day going, leading 57 laps, until he ran out of fuel late in the race. Partner Allmendinger’s solid showing with the No. 22 car’s ability to get up front and lead laps, and this weekend has “darkhorse” written all over the Dinger.

For Truex, last November’s Phoenix race went about how the majority of his races transpired. After starting fifth, the team was able to stay up front and show its strength, but was caught a lap down in the pits late in the going to finish 20th.

This year, Truex believes he has a car capable winning the race. Also, he is running out of excuses. It is a contract year for the New Jersey native, and Truex simply cannot afford another lackluster season.

With the overhaul that has taken place at Michael Waltrip Racing, Truex is now the senior driver on the team (not by age of course — Mark Martin wins in that category) and is confident in his team’s abilities. This week, I think it starts to show.

Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayWPennell

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<p> Fantasy NASCAR predictions for the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.</p>

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