Saturday, November 11, 2006

Phoenix Rising

The Phoenix is a gigantic bird of myth that rises from the ashes of ruined civilizations, worlds or universes, depending on which legend is referenced. It is a symbol of renewal, rebirth, and everlasting life, arising after the fiery end of time. There is a city in Arizona named after the Phoenix, somewhat appropriately as it has risen from the firey Arizona desert. There is also the Phoenix International Raceway (PIR), which has seen plenty of fire from numerous accidents, and rises from the ashes every time race fans flock there to satisfy their passion, four times a year--twice for NASCAR and once each for USAC and the IRL.
The appearence of NASCAR is scheduled quite metaphorically at Phoenix, at the death of each season in the fall, , and shortly after the rebirth of the season in March. In the November race, the Championship battle is often down to a matter of life or death for the contenders, as far as the points contention is concerned.
Over eight years, and twenty races, thirteen winners have had to rise from the ashes of starting the race from outside the top ten. Five winners have started from third place or better. Three drivers have won twice at Phoenix--Davey Allison, Jeff Burton, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. In each case, the repeat winner won back to back races at PIR.
These statistics favor Kevin Harvick, who, under a not-too-extraordinary set of circumstances could see his championship hopes rise from the ashes. He is the winner of the Phoenix race last March, and is starting in second position on the grid. He still has a chance to be the first driver in NASCAR history to win both the Busch series and Cup series in the same year, but it would have to take some bad luck on the part of Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth in order for that to happen.
The pole sitter, Jeff Gordon, has never won a race at Phoenix, which is actually amazing, considering his illustrious career. Although his chances of winning the championship this year are close to nil, a win at PIR, Sunday, would be a much desired accomplishment for him. The #24 team has the experience and the ability to bring Gordon to Victory Lane, and the driver has the skill and determination. He just got married this week, to Supermodel #102 (her name escapes me), which is added incentive for him. He is a racer, above everything else, and a victory would be a bonus to his honeymoon weekend.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won at PIR in November of 2003 and 2004, before the Spring race was added to the schedule. He definitely has a handle on the track, and he is not out of reasonable contention for the Championship. Junior's best career accomplishments have been either in the big restrictor plate races or on the short tracks--those which, like PIR, are a mile or less in length. It could be very exciting for a large number of fans, if Junior were to win Sunday.
Denny Hamlin is the last driver in the top ten who still has a chance to win the Cup Championship. It was at PIR that he won his first Budweiser pole position last year, in what was only his sixth Cup race. He feels confident about Phoenix, as well he should. The #11 team, with the venerable Mike Ford as crew chief, has shown that it can overcome adversity, and help their driver finish in the front. Hamlin is no fluke--he has extrordinary talent, and could become the first Nextel Cup rookie to win the championship in his rookie year.
He is starting in twentieth place, which should be no impedement at Phoenix for him. Watch for Hamlin to be running in the top three by mid-point of the race.
The real excitement of the Chase for the Championship is the points lead battle between Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. Kenseth is only seventeen points behind Johnson, and has a slight advantage over Johnson in terms of experience and performance at PIR. He won at Phoenix in November of 2002, after starting way back in the twenty-eighth position. Sunday, he is starting in the top ten, higher up on the grid than he is accustomed to, but that should be no impediment to the former champion, who is an Ace on any track. Look for Kenseth to lead the most laps in the race. At the risk of jinxing him, I will say that he has the best chance of all the drivers to win, Sunday.
Not that Jimmie Johnson will just pull over and let Kenseth win. He deserves to win the championship, and he knows it. After a poor start in the Chase, this year, the #48 team has truly risen from the ashes, making up over one-hundred and forty points in four races. Johnson has become a smarter driver than he has been in the past, and smart is what he needs to be to beat Kenseth, who is absolutely brilliant. Still, Johnson will be up in the front of the pack early, and will possibly make it a very exciting battle for the finish.
Of the non-chasers, the best drivers with a chance to win Sunday are Kurt Busch, who won at PIR in March of last year, and Tony Stewart, who won in 1999, and is currently on a roll. Stewart has earned more points in the first eight races of the Chase than any of the top ten Championship contenders. He likes winning, and he likes PIR.
Kurt Busch is determined to prove that he is destined to be one of the NASCAR greats. I will make no comment on that, but I will say the man is talented. He can protect the legacy of the Blue Deuce--as the #2 Miller Light car became known in the hands of the great Rusty Wallace--and he will attempt to do so at Phoenix.
Now let's take a moment to honor the veterans of our armed forces, both those who are active, and those of past conflicts. Because of the duty and sacrifice of over forty-million Americans who have served in the military, over the past 230 years, our nation has never had to rise from the ashes. Thank you, and God Bless all of our troops.

1 comment:

Clance' McClannahan said...

Great Post!! How 'bout that Matt next week for a Phoenix?
Let's play tag...