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Phoenix' new asphalt is proving to be quite a challenge, and Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards may need to be cautious in Sunday's 500

 Ford's AJ Allmendinger: front row for Sunday's Phoenix 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   It looks like Ford-versus-Chevrolet in Sunday's Phoenix 500, and Jack Roush's Ford guys might have a bit of an edge…which would be very good for Sprint Cup tour leader Carl Edwards.
   Matt Kenseth, whose own title bid ended at Martinsville two weeks ago, in that crash-filled mess, will be on the pole for the 3 p.m. ET (1 p.m. local) start, with fellow Ford driver AJ Allmendinger right beside him and Ford's Marcos Ambrose right behind.

   Of course speed alone probably won't win this 312-mile race on the redesigned and repaved Phoenix International Raceway. Track position, gas mileage, and strategy should be more important. And drivers will try to be wary on the double-file restarts.
   Edwards, starting on the inside of the fifth row, will be right behind title challenger Tony Stewart, on the outside of the fourth row. The inside line should be preferred, and drivers on the outside are expected to have to bang their way into the low groove.
   "Anything can happen at Homestead…but I think this track is probably the one that will separate us, if it is going to happen," Edwards says of his title battle with Stewart.
    "I am not going to tell you how I am going to drive; I am going to keep that close to my vest. But I do have a pretty good plan.
    "If they want to beat us, they are going to have to win a race or two. They are going to have to step it up…like they have been.
    "Last week (in Stewart's fourth playoff win), those last few laps, I was hanging it out, and I think you could tell from Tony after the race he was spent. He had given it all he had. If we had had one more caution or another restart…."


When Matt Kenseth is on the pole, he's got speed (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Stewart says he's ready for this showdown, Round Nine of the 10-race chase. And he said the changing track conditions didn't catch him by surprise: "I didn't think it was a big drama. It is slower (than Friday); it lost grip. But it is the same as when we tested.
    "I am alright if it stays like this for the whole day.
     "This track was real temperature-sensitive at the test, so this is what we anticipated. This was not a shock by any means."
    Well, Stewart may be in the minority there.
   Jeff Gordon, who won here in February, was only 23rd in qualifying Saturday: "That track is treacherous right now.
  "Last night we were able to really get after it, and go hard right from pit road, and a lot of grip.
   "But, boy, the conditions have changed dramatically. That lap was not pretty; I could not be aggressive at all."
   The tires here are proven Indianapolis tires, hard, durable, with no loss in speed over a gas run.
   But the track itself….
   Well, how does the track feel? "Horrible, treacherous and nasty," Ambrose says.
   "That was insane," Allmendinger said. "The track is way different than what we had Friday. It was definitely a huge surprise."
   Travis Kvapil says Edwards and Stewart may need to be extra careful: "The tire is really hard, and the groove is really narrow -- one and a half lanes.
    "It is hard enough to get around by yourself slipping and sliding, let alone to try and run two or three cars wide.
   "There are going to be a lot of wrecks…I really think so, unfortunately. It might spice up that championship battle."
    The 500, Ambrose says, "depends what the weather does. We have some rain forecast, and it might clean that rubber off, and we have to start again.
    "We have to really watch the weather. It seems there is a lot of grip when the sun is down; it felt great Friday afternoon.
    "Today with the sun out it was a disaster. It was really slick."
    Kenseth says qualifying was a surprise: "I didn't expect qualifying to be as all over the place as it was. That surprised me, how different the speeds were."
    Which probably means qualifying won't be a great indication of what to expect in the 500.
    "The bottom is probably going to be an advantage to get started," Kenseth says. "But it is still 300 miles, and I think at some point in the race every car is going to be in the top groove for a little bit."


    Carl Edwards says Tony Stewart is going to have to keep up with him these last two playoff races (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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