Phoenix International Raceway has played host to quite a few memorable moments for members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family. It was at the 1993 Copper Classic that Tony Stewart decided to quit his machine shop job back in Indiana and become a full-time race driver. He went on to record his second-career Cup victory at the track, equaling Davey Allison's mark for rookies (which Stewart broke the following week at Homestead). Ryan Newman made his premier series debut at the track in 2000, and he broke a long winless drought with his first victory at Stewart-Haas Racing a year later. Greg Biffle has three Nationwide Series wins at Phoenix, the first of which (in 2001) came on a weekend in which he also won the track's truck race. Longtime Coke driver Jeff Burton won that weekend's Cup race to give what was then Roush Racing a sweep of the triple header.
It is another CCRF member, however, that has particularly experienced highs and lows at the "Diamond in the Desert."
There are few greater joys in Sprint Cup racing than watching Denny Hamlin drive on a flat short track. Obviously Martinsville, Richmond, and Loudon stand out as the tracks where his talents really shine, but the Virginia late model ace has also had some terrific runs at Phoenix. Sometimes they have ended well. Other times, they have ended not so well.
In November 2005, it was already known that Denny Hamlin would be driving the No. 11 FedEx car for Joe Gibbs in 2006. He had won the ride with a solid audition that had seen him record three top-10 finishes in his first five starts. What's more, he had brought legtimacy to a car and team that had struggled mightily, first with the late Jason Leffler and then with J.J. Yeley at the wheel. At Phoenix, he put a punctuation point on that audition by winning the pole for the Checker Auto Parts 500. Hamlin didn't win that race, finishing only 13th, but the pole run set up his real coming out party the following February when he became the first rookie to win the Bud Shootout (now Sprint Unlimited, which he of course won for a second time on February 15).
In April 2007, Hamlin's Chevrolet was probably the best car on the evening. He led 70 of the first 100 laps and likely would have won going away if not for a pit road speeding penalty during a caution period on lap 100 that sent him to the tail of the field. He rallied back for a third-place finish, but he almost certainly should have and would have been the victor if he hadn't shot himself in the foot. That was just one of several encounters with "the one that got away" that Hamlin experienced in that '07 campaign. It would not be his last, certainly not at PIR.
One of the most famous races of Hamlin's career is the 2010 Subway Fresh Fit 600K. After suffering through the first two months of the season with a torn ACL in his left knee that he'd suffered the prior December during a game of pick-up basketball, he was forced to move surgical repairs - originally scheduled for the offseason - up to the Monday after a race in Martinsvillle (two weeks before Phoenix). The Martinsville race was rained to Monday, pushing Hamlin's surgery back to Wednesday and cutting two more days out of his recovery. A silver lining was that he won the Martinsville event. At PIR, less than two weeks removed from the surgery, Hamlin arrived with Casey Mears standing by as a relief driver. Despite an early accident that damaged his Camry and battery issues that further haunted his night and dropped him two laps off the pace, Hamlin put on his bravest face possible and stayed in the 11 car for all 378 laps. No 30th-place finish had ever earned a driver such adulation. A week later, he won at Texas, and subsequent wins at Darlington, Pocono, and Michigan were in his near future. It was around this time that Hamlin adopted the slogan "All we do is win."
By the time the Sprint Cup Series returned to Phoenix that November, Hamlin had added three more wins (taking Richmond to end the regular season and the completing season sweeps at Martinsville and Texas). More importantly, with that Texas win, he had ascended past Jimmie Johnson into the points lead with just two races left. Much the same as in April 2007, Hamlin was dominant at PIR. It seemed a certainty that he would win the race or at least finish in the top-three, setting up his corronation as the third man to win a Cup title for the Gibbs team. Everyone knows what happened next: a miscalculation in fuel strategy forced Hamlin to the pit lane for a late splash of gas. He wound up 12th after leading 190 laps. Rival Jimmie Johnson, meanwhile, finished fifth and cut Hamlin's lead down to just 15 points (under the old system, 3-5 points today). Under heavy pressure at Miami, Hamlin essentially choked, tangling with Biffle early and watching helplessly as Johnson pulled back ahead to score his fifth-straight championship.
Such a devastating loss had to affect the team, and the results showed throughout 2011. Hamlin won but once and was never a factor in the championship battle. Mike Ford, the only crew chief Hamlin had known at the Cup level, was fired in the offseason and replaced with Darian Grubb (who had just guided Stewart to an improbable third championship despite knowing he was out at Stewart-Haas at the end of the season). As if to bring things full circle from their November '10 disaster, the 11 bunch - with a new captain in charge - went to PIR for the second race of the 2012 season and won the show. That win was the catalyst in a strong season that saw Hamlin record five victories and contend for the title until car problems at Martinsville and two more sub-par finishes out of his hands doomed him to a sixth-place result.
Now, two years after that first and - to date - only win at PIR, Hamlin returns to Arizona with a bit of momentum following his incredible Speedweeks. Of course, his last Sprint Cup win was just two races ago at the season finale in Homestead. Still, given the nightmare 2013 became after his injury at Fontana at the end of March, another return visit to PIR's victory lane would be the perfect sounding of the horns that Hamlin is back in championship-contending form. It would be only fitting that a win at Phoenix would set him on a path that could lead to his first Sprint Cup championship.