Thursday, February 28, 2013

Phoenix Subway Fresh Fit 500 Pre-Race Notes

Phoenix Offers Johnson Opportunity, Challenges
Harvick and Hamlin were awesome last year at Phoenix (Getty)
Can Jimmie Johnson do it again? NASCAR’s media corps predicted Johnson will win his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship this season in the preseason poll. And that was before last Sunday, when Johnson raced his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to a second Daytona 500 victory.

Johnson has confirmed his stature as the driver to beat. But with 35 races remaining in the 2013 campaign, he’s just one of two dozen or so title contenders.

Only five Daytona 500 winners – Johnson, Jeff Gordon and NASCAR Hall of Famers Lee Petty, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough – have gone on to capture the same season’s championship. Johnson was the most recent to achieve the feat in 2006.

Johnson hardly has stopped to take a breath since rolling into Victory Lane for the 61st time in his NASCAR Sprint Cup career. The Daytona 500 champion’s coast-to-coast odyssey includes stops in New York City, the ESPN campus in Bristol, Conn., Dallas-Ft. Worth and Los Angeles before wrapping up Thursday night in Phoenix.

"You know, I'm just enjoying this moment. This is a one-of-a-kind race. In the rush that follows, the notoriety that follows, it's great for all of us. Chad (Knaus), Rick (Hendrick), the company, Lowe's, Chevrolet. It's just time to sit back and enjoy," Johnson said in his Daytona 500 post-race interview.

"When we pull into the gates at Phoenix next weekend, it's a totally different game, as we all know. We'll enjoy this rush. If there's some down points through the year, we'll look back on this race and smile again."

Johnson will do double duty this week, making a rare NASCAR Nationwide Series appearance in Saturday’s Dollar General 200 Presented by AmeriGas in the No. 5 JR Motorsports Chevrolet.
Phoenix has been one of Johnson’s best tracks as well as the place – last November – where his championship hopes began to unravel thanks to a tire/suspension failure and accident. On the plus side, he boasts four wins, 12 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes, a Coors Light Pole, average finish of 6.7 and a series best Driver Rating of 115.8.

Johnson’s last Phoenix victory came in the fall of 2009. He won in the Valley of the Sun in three of his five championship seasons – 2007-09. Johnson finished fourth in last spring’s Subway Fresh Fit 500, the second of three races run since the one-mile track was repaved and somewhat reconfigured.

The last driver to win the opening two races of the season was Matt Kenseth in 2009.

Johnson’s teammates at Hendrick Motorsports may be his toughest competition on Sunday. Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne have won a combined five Phoenix races. HMS is the all-time Phoenix winner with nine victories.

Daytona Done, Gen-6 Readies For Downforce Tracks
By most measures, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Gen-6 race car passed its Daytona International Speedway debut with flying colors.

The racing from Sprint Unlimited through Budweiser Duel and the Daytona 500 was close and intense – and fans applauded the new look of the Chevrolet SS, Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry.

"I noticed something last night coming out of the track for dinner, just seemed to be a different vibe inside the infield," said Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his post-Daytona 500 media interview. "People seemed more excited about what was getting ready to happen today.

"I think it's a great way to start the season. The car is doing everything we hoped it would do," said the Daytona 500’s second-place finisher. "I think it will just get better. It's still a brand-new car. We have a whole season and the future to improve it and learn how to make it tick."

Now Gen-6 moves into the meat-and-potatoes portion of the schedule, beginning with Phoenix International Speedway’s one-mile oval and – on March 10 – the first intermediate layout at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where teams will get an extra day of testing.

Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson said it’s too early to judge the full potential of Gen-6, especially with the season’s first race being contested on an aerodynamic sensitive, restrictor plate-track.
"Once we get a downforce race or two behind us, we'll have a better understanding," Johnson said. "We're really excited for the races to come. But it is a little early. Maybe after Vegas, Bristol, we can see which team has the upper hand."

Mark Martin, a Phoenix winner with the previous Gen-5 platform, believes Phoenix will be an eye-opener because of the new car’s enhanced downforce. "When we get in these things next week, they are going to be stuck like glue and we're going to be breaking track records," Martin said.

Phoenix Natives Ride Momentum Into Home Track
This has been a long time coming for J.J. Yeley.
Yeley’s hometown is Phoenix, and he’s riding into his home track with some good feelings coming off the best Daytona 500 finish of his career.

Yeley, who drives for the two-car Tommy Baldwin Racing operation, finished 10th in Sunday’s Daytona 500. It was the eighth top-10 finish of his career, and first since June of 2008. He finished 10th on Sunday.
An encore performance may prove difficult for Yeley, who has yet to finish in the top 10 at his home track. At the one-mile track, Yeley’s best finish was 14th in November of 2007.

Yeley’s not the only driver familiar with Phoenix. There is, of course, Danica Patrick, an honorary Phoenix native. Though born in Roscoe, Ill., Patrick resides in both Phoenix and Chicago. And, clearly, she enjoys the home-track advantage.

Last November’s race marked a then-series-best for the Daytona 500 pole winner and top-10 finisher. She finished 17th in her second start with current Stewart-Haas Racing crew chief Tony Gibson, her current best series performance on a non-plate track.

Patrick made all kinds of history on Sunday, becoming the first female to leads laps in the Daytona 500, the first female to score a top-10 in the 500, and the 13th driver to lead both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. Patrick led five laps on Sunday, which put her on a list with only five other drivers who have led five laps in both races. A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Robby Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart are the others.

Phoenix Can Salve Daytona Disappointments
This Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 offers several drivers the opportunity to regain momentum that abruptly vanished during the Daytona 500.

Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth were fast enough to win the "Great American Race" before misfortune – accident or engine failure – dictated otherwise.
Each has tasted success at Phoenix International Raceway.

Harvick, on the verge of going winless last season after two championship "near misses," drove his No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to victory in November. Harvick has won three times on the one-mile oval, posting six top-five and 10 top-10 finishes.

Busch set a one-lap qualifying record (138.766 mph, 25.943 seconds) when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visited Phoenix last fall. Busch, whose Phoenix victory came in 2005, owns the track’s third-best Driver Rating (99.9).

Stewart also is a one-time Phoenix winner but a third-place finish in the fall of 2011 was crucial to capturing his third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. He has a second-best average running position of 10.2 but failed to record a top-15 finish at Phoenix last season.

Kenseth led the most laps in the Daytona 500 (86) before being sidelined by engine failure. He’ll make his first Phoenix start in a Joe Gibbs Toyota as teammate to last spring’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 winner Denny Hamlin. Kenseth’s lone Phoenix victory came in 2002.

Subway 500 Win A Springboard To The Chase
September and the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ is far off into the distance – 25 races to be exact. But this week’s stop at Phoenix International Raceway marks the first time teams will see a 2013 Chase track.

The most recent Phoenix race was crucial to last year’s championship. Brad Keselowski slipped through a final lap accident to grab sixth while Jimmie Johnson earlier had pounded the wall en route to a 32nd-place finish.

Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 won’t guarantee any driver this year’s title. But a victory could be pivotal. All but one Phoenix spring winner – Ryan Newman in 2010 – have qualified for the Chase.

Newman, who failed to qualify for last year’s postseason, is off to a good start finishing fifth in the Daytona 500. His four Coors Light Poles lead all drivers at Phoenix. Newman remains one pole short of the magic 50 milestone that only eight NASCAR Sprint Cup competitors have reached.

Between 2003 and 2009, three drivers – Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick – won eight of 12 Phoenix races. Eight different drivers have graced Victory Lane since the opening race of the 2009 season.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.
The field for the Subway Fresh Fit 500 will be lined up with the fastest 36 drivers from qualifying followed by the next six eligible teams from 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup car owner standings and an eligible past champion. If no past champion is eligible, position 43 goes to the next highest finisher in 2012 owner points. … Milestone Watch: Jimmie Johnson will attempt to eclipse the 14,000 laps-led mark in this weekend’s Subway Fresh Fit 500. He currently has led 13,873 laps, needing 127 to eclipse the mark. … Mike Bliss will attempt to start his 150th NSCS race. … A trio of drivers, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, will each be looking for their 25th series win this weekend. … A win in the race by any of the Toyota drivers would give the manufacturer its 50th series win. … The honorary race officials are Jered Weaver, starting pitcher for the Anaheim Angels; John Skelton, quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals; and Todd Graham, head coach of the Arizona State University Sun Devils football team.

- NASCAR Media services

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