The Profit on CNBC 500 Picks – Presented by Small Businesses Fueling America

Race: The Profit on CNBC 500, Presented by Small Business Fueling America
Date: Sunday March 2, 2014
Track: Phoenix International Raceway
Time: 3 pm ET

by Virginia Vroom, NASCAR Handicapper,

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After an over 6 hour rain delay, my prediction came true! Jr. nation roared as Dale Jr. took the checkers to win the Daytona 500. It was a great race, with the top 20-25 drivers within 1.5 seconds of each other for most of it. The drafting was awesome. Side drafting was a spectacle, as it caused many drivers to lose it. The rookies proved that they aren’t quite as good as they thought they were coming into the Big Race. Kyle Larson hit the wall on the first lap and suffered many other issues throughout the race. The final one was when fellow rookie driver Austin Dillon came up the track while Larson came down just the slightest bit and tapped Larson’s rear quarter panel sending him into the wall with a slew of other drivers. For the Danica Patrick fans, she didn’t fare well and ended up caught up in a wreck in the latter part of the race hitting the wall pretty hard. The silver lining is that she didn’t cause the wreck this time.

Overall, the 500 gave us all a good idea of the excitement that we are likely to see into this season after a ton of changes in the off-season. This weekend, we are rolling into Phoenix. This race is always an exciting one. It’s fun for the drivers and fans alike and a far cry from the super speedway configuration of Daytona. It’s not statistically a short track (although very close) and not a super speedway, but it seems to have a good combination of factors from both types. Phoenix is a 1 mile asphalt D-shaped tri-oval. It has variable banking through all turns and on the backstretch. Turns 1 and 2 and the backstretch go anywhere from 10 to 12 degrees. Turns 3 and 4 vary between 8 and 9 degrees. Finally, the frontstretch has very minor banking at 3 degrees. Although the banking is relatively mild, these guys can still get up to some pretty good speeds on the straights. It’s not quite as “choppy” as Martinsville or Richmond of the other smaller short tracks.

When we look at the historically good drivers here, there are 2 guys in particular that stand out based on their performance in the early stages of this season. Both Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have had success at Phoenix and have been very strong in the opening of the 2014 season. Johnson had the pole here back in November, although Kevin Harvick took the win. What we must remember is that Johnson does have 4 previous win here, but those were also on the track prior to it being reconfigured. Hamlin took one of the wins here in 2012, after the track reconfiguration. Either way, these guys are going to be ones to watch on Sunday afternoon. Another driver worth mentioning is the November 2013 winner, Kevin Harvick. He has 3 wins here, with wins both before and after the reconfiguration. That being said, Harvick really didn’t come on strong like many predicted in the 500. He managed a respectable 13th when all was said and done. When it comes down to it, though, I am going to go with Johnson. I really think that he’s going to come in hot and leave with a victory. He finished 5th last weekend and had a very strong car. There’s something about Phoenix that seems to suit him as well. Here’s a look at your potential winners this weekend:

My Pick to Win: Jimmie Johnson
Middle of the Road Pick: Martin Truex Jr.
Dark Horse Prediction: Brian Vickers

Johnson really is going to be one to contend with. There are other drivers in the Roush garage that may try to sneak up like Edwards and Biffle. While Edwards may be of some concern, Biffle hasn’t had much luck here since the track was reconfigured. When it comes to Truex, watch for him. He had a disappointing run at Daytona after being involved in a wreck, but short tracks are a good pick-me-up for him. I expect him to rebound nicely after this weekend. Finally, Brian Vickers has the second-best average finish on flat tracks out of all drivers in the last 2 years! Didn’t know that, did you? He’s going to be a little bit of a sleeper, but after everything that he’s been through over the last few seasons, I think that him and MWR are going to put together a good racing program. We should expect some big things from Vickers in my opinion.

Here are your current top 16 after last week’s race:

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2. Denny Hamlin
3. Brad Keselowski
4. Jeff Gordon
5. Jimmie Johnson
6. Matt Kenseth
7. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
8. Greg Biffle
9. Austin Dillon
10. Casey Mears
11. Joey Logano
12. Kevin Harvick
13. Jamie McMurray
14. Bobby Labonte
15. Reed Sorenson
16. Carl Edwards

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As you can see, we now have to look at our top 16 drivers since the Chase format changed yet again this year. If you aren’t familiar with the new structure, swing on over to my article about the format changes for qualifying and the Chase, and you can see how everything is going to work. The points right now are only a reflection of where everyone finished at Daytona. Because of that, expect to see some major shakeups in those standings after this weekend. It always takes a few weeks to even the field out to what we ‘expect’ in terms of the top 10 or 15 in the points. Look for this weekend to be full of great racing as we head to the track of blue walls at Phoenix International Raceway!