Although it's only been on the premier-series schedule since 1988, Phoenix International Raceway has left quite an imprint on NASCAR's top level. The facility itself has been around for 50 years, and has a long history of hosting events in what is now known as the K&N Pro Series West, among other series, but it's those notable Sprint Cup Series races that have helped the one-mile oval forge its stock-car identity.
And Phoenix has certainly hosted some headline-grabbers, backed by perhaps the most spectacular natural setting in all of NASCAR, with saguaro cactus and copper-colored hillsides stretching off into the Sonoran Desert. Those on site for that inaugural Cup Series event 25 years ago reported Native Americans riding over from a nearby reservation on horseback, and looking down from a ridgeline to see what all the fuss was about.
In the seasons since, the locals have witnessed plenty on a track that hosts its 35th premier-series event this Sunday. As is so often the case, Phoenix is poised to play a major role in the championship race, with Jimmie Johnson leading Matt Kenseth by seven points on the penultimate weekend of the season. The timing of the track's two events -- one so near the end of the year, one so close on the heels of the Daytona 500 -- has helped make the facility a magnet for drama.
That was certainly the case last fall, when chaos broke out on several fronts in a race that effectively determined the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. It could happen again Sunday, given that Johnson and Kenseth are separated by the same margin that divided Johnson and Brad Keselowski a year ago. Until then, here are the top 10 moments at Phoenix.
10. Spring in the desert, April 2005
Phoenix became a twice-a-year venue beginning with the 2005 season after NASCAR realigned the schedule of its premier series. The move coincided with the addition of lights that turned the 1-mile track into a prime-time facility, and that first night race saw Kurt Busch put the hammer down and never let up. In his final season with Roush -- Busch would wind up suspended for the second race at Phoenix that fall after a brush with the law -- the reigning series champion led 219 of 312 laps and weathered a late challenge from Michael Waltrip, who slapped the wall in the final laps and settled for second.
9. Breaking the streak, April 2010
When he arrived in Phoenix in early 2010, Ryan Newman had gone 77 races without a victory -- a stretch that dated back to his Daytona 500 triumph with Penske more than two years earlier. It seemed that skid would be extended, as Kyle Busch was in control with three scheduled laps to go. But Scott Riggs hit the wall to bring out a caution, Newman's team took two tires, and the driver muscled past leader Jeff Gordon on the final restart to claim his first victory with Stewart-Haas Racing. The margin of victory was .13 seconds, the closest ever at Phoenix, breaking the previous record of .17 which separated winner Mark Martin from Ernie Irvan in 1993.
8. Running on fumes, Nov. 2010
Jimmie Johnson's run of consecutive championships almost never made it beyond four. Denny Hamlin had the streak all but snapped in the fall of 2010, when he built a 78-point edge over Johnson (under the previous system) as they ran on the track. The No. 48 was laboring, and crew chief Chad Knaus was asking his driver to find something, anything, to keep hopes alive. The break came when Hamlin pitted under a questionable fuel strategy, while Johnson stretched his tank the final 77 laps to salvage a top-five and save his season. Hamlin would up 12th, and looked like a beaten man -- which he'd officially be the next weekend, when the drive for five was complete.
7. One for the ages, April 2009
Perhaps the most unexpectedly gratifying season of Mark Martin's career was kick-started at Phoenix in the spring of 2009, when the then-50-year-old driver won the pole and then held off Tony Stewart over the final laps to claim his first victory in over three years. Martin's first win for Hendrick Motorsports, and his first outside of Jack Roush's stable, made him the oldest driver to win a premier-series race since Morgan Shepherd had won at Atlanta at age 51, back in 1993. And it began a joyride of a season that would see Martin win four more times and finish second to Jimmie Johnson in the final standings.
6. Four in a row, Nov. 2007
Jimmie Johnson has made Phoenix his personal playground through the years, often using victories in the desert as a springboard to the championship. That was certainly the case in the fall of 2007, when Johnson broke open what had been a neck-and-neck battle with Jeff Gordon behind four straight wins -- the last one coming, of course, on the desert mile. Johnson led the final 24 laps to build an 86-point lead over Gordon heading into the finale. Just two weeks earlier, Gordon had led the standings near the end of one of his best seasons. But Johnson's victory at Phoenix left his Hendrick teammate uttering two famous words: "It's over."
5. A wreck and a rumble, Nov. 2012
Where to begin? The odd contact between Danica Patrick and Jeff Burton on the final lap? The cut tire that sent Jimmie Johnson into the wall? Or Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer wrecking one another on the race track, and sparking a melee in the garage area that had Bowyer sprinting toward the scene? (See video of that incident below.) Johnson's misfortune allowed Brad Keselowski to overtake him in the standings, and seize a 20-point lead that would hold up the following week. The Gordon-Bowyer feud stemmed from contact in an April race at Martinsville. Oh, and did we mention Kevin Harvick won to snap a 44-race winless skid?
4. Ready for a record, Nov. 2009
Jimmie Johnson was never more dominant than in 2009, when he crushed the opposition en route to a fourth straight championship. The backbreaker came at Phoenix, one week after Johnson and Sam Hornish Jr. had tangled in an accident at Texas that gave the competition a mere sliver of hope. Forget it -- Johnson went out and owned Phoenix, winning his third straight Chase race at the track, and fourth event in the last five there overall. By the end of the day, the championship was effectively sealed, and Johnson was on his way to owning a record he and Cale Yarborough had previously shared.
3. "Polish Victory Lap," Nov. 1988
For Alan Kulwicki, winning his first race at NASCAR's top level -- and the first at the Phoenix track -- was big enough. The 33-year-old driver/owner was near tears as he led the final 16 laps, the checkered flag his reward for all the hard work that went into maintaining his own team. But it wasn't just how Kulwicki won, it was how he celebrated. He took the checkered flag, circled most of the track, and then turned around and drove in the opposite direction. "I wanted to do something memorable," he told reporters, and he did, christening his "Polish Victory Lap." In the years after Kulwicki's untimely death in a plane crash, many other winners would honor him by doing the same thing.
2. Fit for a King, Oct. 1996
The years immediately following Richard Petty's retirement had been lean ones for one of NASCAR's most famous vehicles. The King's most immediate successor had been Rick Wilson, driving a car rechristened as No. 44, but by the next year both were gone. Wally Dallenbach Jr. and John Andretti both had stints in the No. 43. But the vehicle still went winless for over 12 years -- until Bobby Hamilton, and Phoenix in the fall of 1996. On a day when eventual champion Terry Labonte drove with a broken wrist suffered in a crash in practice (see a clip of Labonte below), Hamilton led the final 30 laps to record his first Cup Series victory, and the first for both Petty Enterprises and the No. 43 since the King's last at Daytona in 1984.
1. No. 76 meets No. 3, April 2007
Jeff Gordon had not won in 25 races when he came to Phoenix in the spring of 2007, but one night -- and one magical moment -- helped turn everything around. Gordon led the final 13 laps to score his 76th career victory to tie Dale Earnhardt for sixth on NASCAR's all-time list. He performed his victory lap with a large No. 3 flag flying from his driver's side window.
It was an electric scene, one that brought two of NASCAR's greatest icons brought together and stirred emotions within the crowd. "To even come close to anything he's ever done on this sport is amazing to me," Gordon said of Earnhardt. It was just the beginning of one of the best seasons of Gordon's career, one where he'd win six times (including two of the next three races after Phoenix), record 30 top-10 finishes, and own the points lead until Jimmie Johnson supplanted him late in the Chase. Gordon didn't win the title that year, but on one night in Phoenix he earned something much bigger -- a place alongside the Intimidator in history.
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