Phoenix International Raceway means a lot of things to Denny Hamlin. The facility was the site of the beginning of the end to his ill-fated 2010 Chase run. Following its 2011 repave, Hamlin became the track’s most dominant driver and a winner in 2012. The track also served as an ancillary character in one the most puzzling penalties in recent NASCAR history, which involved Hamlin.
In Hamlin’s season filled with backache (injury) and heartbreak (missing the Chase), Phoenix might again be home to another eventful day in the life of the No. 11’s driver. If there is any place that might ensure a continuation of Hamlin’s one win-per-year streak (going on eight seasons now), it’s the track that pops up in the background of his career’s main plot lines.
7.313 Hamlin ranks first among all Cup drivers in Production in Equal Equipment Ratings (PEER) in the four races on Phoenix’s reinvigorated surface.
Hamlin’s 4.5-place average finish — he is the only driver to score three top-5 finishes — over the four-race span is over three positions better, on average, the next-most productive racer (Carl Edwards, 7.8-place average finish). In a twist of irony, the place that derailed a promising run to the title is now one of his best tracks. Unfortunately, that isn’t the only bit of irony surrounding the Hamlin-Phoenix dynamic.
58.62% In March’s race at Phoenix, Hamlin accumulated a 58.62 percent passing efficiency — his best single-race passing performance of the season — en route to a third-place finish.
How ironic that Hamlin got fined by NASCAR for criticizing the Gen-6, namely its inability to pass, following his most prolific passing day of 2013.
“Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you,” said Hamlin in the post-race interview. “You would’ve placed me in 20th place with 30 (laps) to go, I would have stayed there — I wouldn’t have moved up. It’s just one of those things where track position is everything.”
Whether a driver feels that passing is more difficult is a subjective measure, but it should be noted that Hamlin (44.47 percent) ranks 47th out of 51 PEER-eligible drivers in season-long pass efficiency. His opinion might not be universal.
+5 Greg Biffle’s five positions gained from the non-preferred groove was the March race’s most spellbinding number.
At Phoenix, the outside groove is no-man’s land, which made Biffle’s perfect position retention across five restart attempts in that groove pretty spectacular. He led 39 laps in that race before finishing 17th, but overall, he is a top-six producer at Phoenix with an apparent affinity for conquering positions from the track’s nether region. This knack of his didn’t coalesce with his output at other tracks this year; he ranked 18th in restart position retention during the 26-race regular season, defending his spot just 41.3 percent of the time.
85.29% and +9.8% The No. 17 team of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. retains its position at a race’s 90-percent mark 85.29 percent of the time. It gains positions on top of that 9.8 percent of the time.
Stenhouse, a rookie driver, and Scott Graves, a rookie crew chief, have combined this season to be the best two-way closing team in the Cup Series. Who knew? Their penchant for exemplary defense and offense at the end of races is a foundation on which the No. 17 team can build in the post-Matt Kenseth era. They return to a track this weekend that helped start the reputation; in the March race at Phoenix, Stenhouse moved from 20th to 16th in the final 31 laps.
9th Jeff Burton and the No. 31 team, with its revolving door of crew chiefs, has a clean average finish of ninth in the three Phoenix races it’s finished dating back to the fall 2011 race.
Deep into the winter of his career, Burton’s overall production is far removed from the halcyon seasons of the late 1990s; however, the mile-long whatsitsshape at Phoenix seems to bring out the best in this current iteration of Burton. He ranks ninth in PEER there over the last four races and his success despite the pit box changes — NASCAR Nationwide Series wrench Ernie Cope filled in for an absent Luke Lambert in March — tells us that he carves out results based on old-fashioned driver know-how. For fans pining for a few more good Burton outings, Sunday’s race might provide one last great opportunity.
11.5 Jamie McMurray’s average finish in this year’s Chase races, prior to last Sunday’s race, was 11.5, the best mark among non-Chase drivers.
His No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team finished 31st at Texas, breaking up an otherwise stout string of races, which included a win at Talladega. Phoenix provides a challenge for him. Going by his 24.8-place average finish there (he is tied for last in track-specific PEER rankings), it’s safe to say he is flummoxed by the place. His best finish on the new version of Phoenix is 17th, which means the job for crew chief Bono Manion, who is reportedly being relieved of his duties after this season, won’t be easy. To continue a swell close to the 2013 season, McMurray and team will need to have a breakthrough race at a place that has provided them massive migraines across the last three seasons.
David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projections, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at@DavidSmithMA.
Photos byAction Sports, Inc.