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Warning! Do Not Bet Against Hendrick At PIR

Jeff Hood | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 13 2009
Mark Martin took the checkered flag – literally – at Phoenix in the spring race. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Mark Martin took the checkered flag – literally – at Phoenix in the spring race. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jeff Hood | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Avondale, Ariz. – When it comes to predicting a winner in Sunday’s Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, it’s difficult to bet against the four-car Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut.

Mark Martin led 157 laps at Phoenix International Raceway in April and wound up snapping a 98-race winless streak.

Jimmie Johnson, who has never finished off the lead lap in 12 starts in Phoenix, reeled off three consecutive wins at the flat 1-mile oval beginning in Nov. 2007.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has visited PIR’s victory lane twice, both times in Dale Earnhardt Inc.-owned Chevrolets.

Jeff Gordon, who has captured three poles at Phoenix, scored his lone victory at the central Arizona track in April 2007.

Aside from wins by Terry Labonte in 1994 and Kyle Busch 12 years later, Hendrick’s success at Phoenix had been relatively mediocre.

But Gordon’s long-awaited victory kicked off a string of five consecutive wins at Phoenix for Hendrick.

“When I started driving for Hendrick (in 2002), I don’t think Phoenix was one that was circled on the calendar for any of the teams,” Johnson said. “I think Terry had some luck. But Jeff didn’t really run well here.

“So from my time at Hendrick, I think we, as an organization and as a group, have figured out how to get around this track and the setups we needed.”

During his heyday in the late 1990s and early this decade, Phoenix proved to be a puzzle to Gordon.

“I can remember Jeff in 2000 or 2001, something like that, when I first started working with the team,” Johnson said. “He didn’t have a lot of good things in his mind about this track.”

According to Johnson, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer are the greatest threat to interrupt Hendrick’s domination in the desert this weekend.

Busch, who is coming off a win at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, said track position management is vital at Phoenix.

“Sometimes four tires aren’t going to overcome two tires with the track position that those two-tire guys have,” said Busch, a winner at Phoenix in April 2005. “So it’s very difficult.

“And double file restarts plug up any chance that you think you’re going to have of making a lot of positions because you’re racing with all the lead lap guys. All the fast guys are up front and usually who you’re around are the ones in the same sequence of tires that you have.”

Carl Edwards, whose best Phoenix finish is a fourth on three different occasions, admitted that he kept a watchful eye on Johnson and Martin during Friday’s 90-minute Sprint Cup practice session.

“We’re watching the 48 and 5 when they were in qualifying trim,” Edwards said. “We watched them really close to see kind of how we stacked up. They’re good, obviously. That’s all you can do in practice.

“You can watch the guys that you think are going to be the best, compare yourself to them and that’s how you’ll see where you stand.”

Other drivers considered to be threats to win on Sunday include Juan Pablo Montoya and Denny Hamlin.

But Montoya appears to be more excited about next week’s season finale at the high-banked 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway than Sunday’s event at Phoenix.

“I just enjoy (going) a little faster, to be honest,” he said.

Hamlin, a successful flat track racer, was asked if he was better on flat tracks than Johnson.

“I don’t know, maybe we should switch cars one week,” Hamlin deadpanned.

– Jeff Hood can be reached at jhood@racintoday.com

Jeff Hood | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 13 2009
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