The first two races and the final two races are similar in many aspects.  The two races happen in mirror images as far as states they occur, the weather is somewhat similar, and often the races are most important.

The first two set the tone for the first part of the season, while the final two in essence set up the final battle for the title.

What is good about the second race of the season and the 35th...exact same track.  This weekend NASCAR is in the desert, where some fans don't worry about buying seats in the grandstands, but would rather sit in their folding chairs on the dirt, surrounded by cactus plants.  Welcome to Phoenix, the "Jewel in the Desert."

After last week, the title picture is as clear as a sunny day.  But in the pool, there's still a lot of contenders that could win their own championship.  So, who do the writers have this week?

Here is a look at their picks for the AdvoCare 500:

 

Misan Akuya:  Carl Edwards

Edwards won this race eariler in the year.

Rob Blount:  Brad Keselowski

​No reason.

James Broomhead:  Denny Hamlin

No reason.

Kelly Crandall:  Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Why not?

Billy Fellin:  Carl Edwards

Cuz won here in the spring, I think he'll repeat.

Michael Hirshbein:  Danica Patrick

Already out of the hunt, oh well.

Kara Martin:  Kurt Busch

No reason.

Ryan O'Hara:  Kyle Busch

I'm taking a big risk considering how awful he did here in the spring, but he had led a lot of laps here.

Dustin Parks:  Jimmie Johnson

If you all have been following me, I haven't picked the 48 at all so far.  I could have at Dover, but didn't.  Could have at Martinsville or Charlotte, but didn't (and it led to a win at the Paper Clip).  Really don't wanna pick him at Homestead because he's only had to really race there twice, so I don't know how well he really will be.

Instead, my 48 card is getting pulled this week.  My plan for picking since Talladega seems to be falling into place.  I've gained positions each week.  Come on Jimmie, win or finish ahead of my competition.

Patti Rodisch:  Jeff Gordon

The replays of last years fall race will be nauseating this weekend. Even after a disappointing Texas this teams confidence is sky high. Gordon will rebound and find victory lane.

Sal Sigala Jr:  Carl Edwards

I am going to the race to shoot one NNS team and 4 K&N West drivers.

Rob Tiongson:  Denny Hamlin

After much contemplating, I'm gonna go with a FedEx delivery at Phoenix for VIctory Lane. I jinxed my lady's pick, so this time, I'm going with a suggestion of hers. GO Team Random!

 

Standings following Texas:

Sal Sigala Jr. (2323) Kasey Kahne finished 5th (2)

Rob Tiongson (2312) Kyle Busch finished 13th (3)

Dustin Parks (2308) Matt Kenseth finished 4th (1)

Rob Blount (2299) Kyle Busch finished 13th (3)

Ryan O'Hara (2299) Brad Keselowski finished 6th (1)

Kelly Crandall (2291) Brad Keselowski finished 6th (1)

Billy Fellin (2290) Kyle Busch finished 13th (3)

Patti Rodisch (2286) Kevin Harvick finished 8th (0)

Misan Akuya (2272) Jeff Gordon finished 38th (3)

James Broomhead (2256) Joey Logano finished 3rd (2)

Kara Martin (2246) Carl Edwards finished 37th (1)

Michael Hirshbein (2224) Matt Kenseth finished 4th (3)

 

Final Thoughts:  Whether it's due to the fact that each week the pick must be different or that picking is slim, there were only two instances of similar drivers being picked.  That means everyone is hoping for a strong weekend.  At the same time, this is only the fifth race on the new design for Phoenix, so this is still a young track.

So what does this all mean?  What it means is that after this weekend, the field of contenders in Cup still will be between the two best guys.  In the pool...it's still unclear.

Find out at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN to see where things go.

 

Summary of Picks:

Carl Edwards-3

Denny Hamlin-2

Kurt Busch-1

Kyle Busch-1

Dale Earnhardt Jr-1

Jeff Gordon-1

Jimmie Johnson-1

Brad Keselowski-1

Danica Patrick-1