Valley of the Sun: Joe Gibbs Racing anticipates desert drive time DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (April 18, 2006) -- A sun-drenched desert oval might not seem like a dream destination, but if you work for Joe Gibbs Racing, Phoenix International Raceway ...
Valley of the Sun: Joe Gibbs Racing anticipates desert drive time
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (April 18, 2006) -- A sun-drenched desert oval might not seem like a dream destination, but if you work for Joe Gibbs Racing, Phoenix International Raceway beckons more than any mirage.
The one-mile track nestled among mountain foothills represents different things to reigning NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet) and his Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate teammates Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet) and J.J. Yeley (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet).
But when the green flag flies for Saturday night's Subway Fresh 500, all three drivers hope to ride their different Phoenix connections to victory.
"I really do feel like it's my West Coast home away from home," said Stewart, who has raced in six different series at Phoenix since 1993 -- the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, the NASCAR Busch Series, USAC Midgets, USAC Silver Crown, the Indy Racing League and Supermodifieds.
For Yeley, Phoenix is home. Like Stewart, the Arizona native has turned countless laps at PIR, where it was announced last November that he would succeed former series champion Bobby Labonte (No. 43 Cheerio's/Betty Crocker Dodge) in JGR's No. 18 Chevrolet. A good performance before the home folks would not only extend Yeley's dream weekend, but also boost him in the series and rookie standings.
Hamlin can't claim his teammates' Phoenix mileage, but he'd gladly duplicate his last -- and only -- trip to the Valley as a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup competitor. Hamlin won the Budweiser Pole for last November's event at Phoenix -- the first of his young career. He also finished a respectable 13th.
"Phoenix International Raceway is one of my favorite tracks -- a track that I feel really suits my driving style," Hamlin said. "I spent years running late models on tracks that were flat, or at least not banked like a lot of the tracks we visit, and I think that really helps me coming to a track like Phoenix in a Cup car because it feels familiar to me."
Stewart understands. With one win (1999) and five top 10s in eight series starts at Phoenix, he merits particular attention. Usually a slow starter, he's creeping closer to series leader Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) with one win (Martinsville) and three top-five finishes in his last four events. Currently fifth, only 97 points behind Johnson, Stewart could use Phoenix as a springboard.
"I love coming to Phoenix for a night race," Stewart said. "If you can't have fun with that, you're never going to enjoy a race at Phoenix. The lights make us look like we're running twice as fast, and when we bottom-out in the turns you see the sparks fly out from underneath the cars. It's a good show."
And potentially rewarding. The combination of a two-time series champion and two talented rookies could be the one to beat Saturday night.
"I think this is the best year for Joe Gibbs Racing because between myself and Denny and Tony, we are all comfortable with similar setups," Yeley said. "When we show up at the race track, other than a couple of minor changes, the cars are almost identical. We'll tune them as the race go on and if one of us finds something better, the other two teams will actually give it a try. That's something that Joe Gibbs Racing has never had in the past."