|Phoenix provides some of the best racing we'll see all season|
That’s the sound of the first ticket possibly being stamped for the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
The lucky recipient … none other than fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., who claimed his second Daytona 500 victory after managing to keep Denny Hamlin at bay during the final laps.
That louder-than-usual sound during qualifying, don’t fret. It’s just the sound of all 43 cars hitting the track at the same time, rather than individual qualifying runs of years past. The new knock-out qualifying format will be used for the first time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Phoenix.
Those collective groans you might have heard Sunday night during the Daytona 500? They emanated from some of the star drivers who struggled during the race, including Martin Truex Jr., whose engine blew up early in the race, and Tony Stewart, who hoped for a better outing in his return to competition.
It’s way too early to sound the trumpets or for teams to sound the alarms, but the rest of the NASCAR Nationwide Series should take notice: Regan Smith is making a strong case as to why he should be the favorite to claim this year’s championship as evidenced by his victory in Saturday’s race.
Next on the docket, however, is Phoenix International Raceway – a track at which Smith’s average finishing position in NASCAR’s three national series is 24.6. In addition, Joe Gibbs Racing is on a hot streak and looking to extend their consecutive wins to four at the track.
When the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series resumes at Martinsville in late March, after more than a month off, expect Timothy Peters and his fellow competitors to be primed for some action-packed short-track racing.
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Junior All But Punches Ticket To The Postseason
On Sunday night, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line first in the 56th running of the Daytona 500 after more than a six-hour rain delay, fans everywhere celebrated. Backing up a promise he made earlier, Earnhardt joined Twitter and, more importantly, became the first driver to all but throw his name in for a spot in the reformatted Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Earnhardt held off Denny Hamlin as the field approached the checkers before a wreck ended the race under caution. The victory was Earnhardt’s second in the season opener and his 20th overall.
New Qualifying Format Ready For NSCS Debut
The revamped knock-out qualifying format will make its inaugural appearance in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for Sunday’s race in Phoenix. As long as the weather permits, two of NASCAR’s national series will complete qualifying for the first time under the new format. Last week at Daytona, the NASCAR industry excitedly awaited the arrival of knock-out qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, but rain cut short NNS qualifying and completely cancelled the truck series session. Qualifying for the Daytona 500 did not change from years past.
Big Names Looking For Big Comebacks
Several drivers used to driving near the front of the field will be looking forward to Sunday’s race at Phoenix to get their season on track. Among the drivers in need of a solid performance at the one-mile track is Tony Stewart, who battled issues throughout the race and finished 35th in his return to competition after missing the final 15 weeks of 2013. Other drivers looking to rebound are Kasey Kahne (31st in the Daytona 500), Danica Patrick (40th), Clint Bowyer (42nd) and Martin Truex Jr. (43rd).
Rebound Time For Rookies
This year’s much ballyhooed seven Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders were a hot topic during Speedweeks, and all of it was warranted. All seven hoped to impress in the season-opening Daytona 500, however, five of them succumbed to accidents that ended their nights prematurely. The highest-finishing rookie was Austin Dillon, who posted a respectable ninth-place finish after starting on the pole. Alex Bowman was the only other rookie still standing at race’s end, finishing two laps down in 23rd. Expect all seven to bounce back, beginning this weekend in Phoenix.
Returning To Their Roots
Several drivers and NASCAR’s new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Managing Director Richard Buck should feel at home this weekend. When the series arrives in Phoenix for The Profit on CNBC 500 Presented by Small Business Fueling American at Phoenix International Raceway, the weekend will have a sort of a homecoming feel for Buck (Phoenix) and drivers Alex Bowman (Tucson), Michael McDowell (Glendale) and J.J. Yeley (Phoenix), who all come from the area. Additionally, Danica Patrick currently resides in Phoenix.