History At Phoenix Tees Up Earnhardt For Two In A Row
With an epic Daytona 500 triumph in the books, it’s on to Phoenix International Raceway for Dale Earnhardt Jr., with plenty of historical fodder indicating a second-straight victory not only is possible but somewhat probable considering the inevitable momentum from winning NASCAR’s biggest event.
Earnhardt’s success at the one-mile PIR oval has been somewhat intermittent but it’s also been memorable; he went to Victory Lane back-to-back in 2003 and ’04 (there was one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race per season there at the time). Also, there’s this recent history: Earnhardt finished fifth and fourth at PIR during his solid 2013 season.
Inevitably, talk started almost immediately Sunday night about another possibility: Earnhardt winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship for the first time. Five drivers have won the Daytona 500 and the series title in the same season: Jimmie Johnson (2006, ’13), Jeff Gordon (1997), Richard Petty (1964, ’71, ’74, ’79), Cale Yarborough (1977) and Lee Petty (1959).
Perhaps getting somewhat overlooked is that Earnhardt was being considered a title contender before the first lap was run this year. Such optimism was based mainly on his strong 2013 season when he posted a career-high 22 top 10s, starting with a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 and ending with a fifth-place finish in the final series points, Earnhardt’s best result since 2006 – and his best result since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. That followed a several-year slump that seemed particularly puzzling in 2009 and ’10 when Earnhardt finished 25th and 21st in points.
Earnhardt said he is grateful that his organization, starting with Hendrick, “… believed in me, and were trying to find ways to make the chemistry work, regardless of what anybody said, regardless of what the critics were saying, when everybody was saying I was finished, whether I was going to do anything ever again. I’ve been pretty vindicated, but I’m in a good place now. I feel we’re embarking on a season that could be something really special for me.
“Whether we win the championship or not remains to be seen, obviously. But I had one of my greatest years last year, and I think we can top that this season.”
A statistical footnote going into Phoenix: Since the Daytona 500 became the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ season-opening race in 1982 – a surprising piece of trivia in and of itself – only two drivers have followed a Daytona 500 victory with a win the very next race: Matt Kenseth at Phoenix in 2009 and Jeff Gordon at Rockingham in 1997; Gordon went on to win the series championship that year.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Next Race: The Profit on CNBC 500 presented by Small Business Fueling America
The Place: Phoenix International Raceway
The Date: Sunday, March 2
The Time: 3 p.m. (ET)
TV: FOX, 2:30 p.m. (ET)
Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
Distance: 500 Kilometers (312 laps)
NASCAR Nationwide Series
Next Race: Blue Jeans Go Green 200 presented by Cotton, The Fabric of Our Lives
The Place: Phoenix International Raceway
The Date: Saturday, March 1
The Time: 3:45 p.m. (ET)
TV: ABC, 3 p.m. (ET)
Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
Distance: 200 miles (200 laps)
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Next Race: KROGER 250
The Place: Martinsville Speedway
The Date: Saturday, March 29
The Time: 1:30 p.m. (ET)
TV: FOX Sports 1, 1 p.m. (ET)
Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
Distance: 250 miles (131.5 laps)
New NASCAR Sprint Cup Coors Light Qualifying Debuts
That phrase you heard so often the last two weeks – “the pack is back” – can be recycled, and used again Friday at around 4:30 p.m. local time at Phoenix International Speedway.
At about that time, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams will roll their cars to the grid, ready for the debut of the new group qualifying format to be used at each premier series race except last week’s Daytona 500.
A primer on the new rules: There will be two rounds of qualifying at Phoenix, a one-mile track. The first round will last 30 minutes. The fastest 12 will then move to a second and final round lasting 10 minutes, with the fastest car in the final round winning the Coors Light Pole.
Actually – if the weather cooperates – this weekend could see the new format in play for the first time in its entirety for the NASCAR Nationwide and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series as well. Truck qualifying was completely washed out at Daytona, and rain caused Nationwide Series qualifying to be limited to one round.
At tracks measuring 1.25 miles or longer, there will be three rounds of qualifying, with the field decreasing to 24 cars in the second round and 12 cars in the final round. The time breakdown in each: 25 minutes for the first; 10 for the second; and five for the third.
Preseason Favorites Racing To Rebound After Daytona
The anticipation and excitement surrounding the season-opening Daytona 500 has been replaced by early-season angst for several drivers who, coming into this season, were considered strong favorites to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and contend for the series championship. Despite the new increased emphasis on winning races, faltering at the 500 will never be easy to accept.
A total of 16 drivers will qualify for the Chase, with race winners in the season’s first 26 races getting first dibs – provided they are in the top 30 in series points after 26 events. And since there have been two times (1961 and 2003) that there have been more than 15 different winners in the first 26, the points likely will come into play.
Which means, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer are especially looking for strong Phoenix runs. Kahne came out of the 500 mired in 29th in series points; Stewart is 35th; Bowyer is 39th. Kahne had the best starting position of the three (fifth).
Kahne was involved in two accidents that caused the third and fourth cautions of the race; Stewart was hampered by a faulty fuel cell which had to be replaced 130 laps into the 200-lap race; and Bowyer had engine problems and completed only 127 laps.
Rookies Face Tough Assignment In Rebound Effort
This season marks the largest class of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders since 1994, and because of this and their talent they were a hot topic throughout Speedweeks. They were hoping to get their rookie campaigns off to strong starts in the Daytona 500, but by the end of the 200-lap race five of the seven in the race had succumbed to accidents that ended their nights prematurely.
Austin Dillon was the highest-finishing rookie with a ninth-place finish. Alex Bowman was the only other rookie still running at the end of the night, finishing two laps down in 23rd.
They will be looking to bounce back this Saturday when the series heads west to Phoenix. The group of eight (Ryan Truex failed to qualify for the Daytona 500) has combined for only three series starts at the one-mile facility. Justin Allgaier started last season’s penultimate race and finished 31st, while Cole Whitt ran the fall races in 2011 and 2013, finishing 25th and 40th, respectively.
Homecoming For Patrick, Others This Weekend
Danica Patrick is another driver who was disappointed at Daytona, after a 40th-place finish that belied a semi-strong run. A hard crash into the wall entering the DIS tri-oval ended her effort.
This week Patrick returns to her adopted hometown of Phoenix. Patrick, from Roscoe, Ill., has three NASCAR Sprint Cup starts at PIR with a best finish of 17th in November 2012.
A few more Phoenix connections to watch for this weekend:
- Denny Hamlin, fresh off his runner-up Daytona 500 finish, has an affinity to the area – renting a house in Scottsdale in the offseason between the 2011-12 seasons. He won at PIR in March 2012 and got his first series pole there in November 2005. Hamlin’s listed hometown is Chesterfield, Va.
- Michael McDowell, driving the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Ford, is from nearby Glendale. McDowell failed to qualify for the 500.
- Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Alex Bowman, from Tucson, Ariz., will make his series PIR debut after a 23rd-place finish in the 500.
- And new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Managing Director Richard Buck is a Phoenix native. Buck was named series director in January of this season after overseeing the merger of GRAND-AM and the American Le Mans Series. Prior to his role at IMSA, Buck served as the director of NACAR’s touring series from 2006-12.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Etc.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. became the 11th driver to win multiple Daytona 500s. That stat has been updated in each of the last three years, with Matt Kenseth (2012) and Jimmie Johnson (2013) also capturing their second win in The Great American Race. … Milestone Watch: With his next top-10 finish, Matt Kenseth will become the 22nd driver in NSCS history to reach 250 career top 10s. … Kyle Busch needs 192 laps led to become the 15th driver in NSCS history to reach 10,000 career laps led (Sunday’s race is scheduled for 312 laps). … This year, Phoenix International Raceway celebrates its 50th anniversary (NASCAR has raced there since 1988). Throughout the year, the raceway will spotlight the top 50 people who have influenced the track. Among the NASCAR figures already announced are drivers Sam Hornish Jr., Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Kyle Busch. Also on the list is owner Richard Childress and former NASCAR Vice President of Corporate Communications, the late Jim Hunter. … Last year’s two winners at Phoenix were Carl Edwards (spring) and Kevin Harvick (fall). … Eliminator Round Preview: If this year’s Phoenix winner in November’s race is a championship-eligible driver, he or she will automatically earn a berth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Goal No. 1 For Smith: Win JRM Its First Championship
With a victory in the season-opening DRIVE4COPD at Daytona International Speedway last Saturday night, Regan Smith got his season off to a thrilling start by edging out Brad Keselowski at the finish line by .013 seconds – the seventh closest finish in NASCAR Nationwide Series history and second closest in series history at Daytona. The win sets him on the right track to accomplish his primary goal this season – win JR Motorsports its first title.
“This year there’s two goals, that’s to win Junior Motorsports their first championship and for me to prove to the right owner that I belong racing on Sundays,” Smith said after the race. “But that first goal is the primary goal.”
If history is any indication, by achieving his first goal Smith could find himself racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series on Sundays in the near future. Fifteen of the past 16 NNS championships (dating back to 1998 when JR Motorsports owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first NASCAR driver’s title) were won by drivers currently competing fulltime in NASCAR’s highest level, including 2013 champion Austin Dillon.
The next step in Smith’s quest to accomplish his primary goal is finishing well in Saturday’s Blue Jeans Go Green 200 presented by Cotton, The Fabric of Our Lives at Phoenix International Raceway. In six series starts at the one-mile track he’s posted one top-five (fourth place in last November’s race) and two top-10 finishes. In nine NSCS starts at the track, Smith has never finished better than 20th. In two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts at Phoenix, his best finish is 30th.
Smith arrives in Phoenix with a six-point advantage over Trevor Bayne in the points standings. Elliott Sadler (-eight), Brendan Gaughan (-nine) and Ty Dillon (-10) round out the top five. Smith’s four career wins have all come in the last 35 races. Last year Smith captured two of those victories (Talladega, Michigan), after winning the season finale in his only start of 2012.
In 2013, Smith led the points standings for 10 consecutive weeks before ultimately finishing third in the final standings behind Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr.
Joe Gibbs Racing Goes For Four At Phoenix
In this era of parity among drivers and teams, it’s hard for either to establish winning streaks of any length. Therefore, Joe Gibbs Racing has a rare opportunity this Saturday to win its fourth consecutive race at the one-mile track.
Kyle Busch, who will once again be piloting the No. 54 JGR Toyota at Phoenix, swept both Phoenix races last year after Joey Logano won the penultimate race of the 2012 season. Logano left JGR during that offseason to drive for Team Penske.
In 24 races, no team has ever captured four victories in a row at Phoenix. Roush Fenway Racing is the only other organization to piece together three straight NNS wins there when Carl Edwards won in November 2008 and Edwards and Greg Biffle won the two Phoenix events the following year.
Busch will be joined this weekend in the starting field by teammates Elliott Sadler (No. 11) and Matt Kenseth (No. 20). The trio of JGR drivers has collected eight series Phoenix wins – Busch (six), Kenseth (one) and Sadler (one).
Trio Of Rookies Setting High Expectations
A loaded Sunoco Rookie of the Year class arrived last weekend in Daytona with the highest of expectations. At the end of the 121-lap race, Ty Dillon, Dylan Kwasniewski and Chase Elliott were the top rookie finishers all with top-20 finishes and seeded in the top 10 in the standings.
The series now heads west to Phoenix where all three drivers, whose average age is 19, will be making their first NNS starts at the one-mile track.
In two NCWTS starts at Phoenix, Dillon, who finished seventh in Saturday’s Daytona race, has finishes of fourth and 15th. He currently sits seventh (10 points behind leader Regan Smith), one spot and point ahead of Kwasniewski. Elliott finished 15th and is in eighth place, 18 points outside of first. In Elliott’s only truck series start at Phoenix, he finished 10th. Saturday marks Kwasniewski’s first start at the track in a national series event.
NASCAR Nationwide Series Etc.
Remember to bring your jeans with you to Phoenix. Not to wear them, but to donate them as part of an at-track recycling program. The denim will be converted into UltaTouch Denim Insulation by Bonded Logic and then donated to communities in need across the country. … Before Saturday’s race, Joey Gase will meet with the family of Michael Choppi, who saved three lives through the generous gift of organ donation. Gase’s mom passed away in 2011 and was an organ and tissue donor. … Tommy Joe Martins and Martin Roy will attempt to make their first career start in the NNS this weekend in Phoenix.
Busch Picks Up Where He Left Off In Season Opener
Although it wasn’t the Daytona 500, Kyle Busch still celebrated his historic win after taking the checkered flag by .016-seconds over Timothy Peters last Friday at Daytona International Speedway.
With his season-opening win, the Las Vegas native became the first driver to complete the career national series sweep at Daytona, adding to his wins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup and NASCAR Nationwide Series at the track.
In addition to the accomplishment by Busch and his No. 51 ToyotaCare Tundra team, he also helped manufacturer Toyota capture its eighth consecutive win at DIS.
The win was Busch’s 36th in the series, and he has now won at least one race in nine of the past 10 seasons he has competed. His lone year without a win was in 2012 when he only made three starts.
Kyle Busch Motorsports is also the reigning owner champion, and the team will attempt to defend its title this season with Busch and Erik Jones sharing driving duties. KBM won the owner crown after tying with ThorSport Racing last year and winning on a tie breaker.
Jones, who set a record as the youngest winner in the history of the series with his win at Phoenix last November (17 years, five months and nine days), will drive the truck in the next race at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday, March 29.
Busch’s next race is scheduled for Charlotte Motor Speedway during Sprint All-Star Weekend on Friday, May 16.
Rookies Have Mixed Results At Daytona
Considering it was their first start ever in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Daytona International Speedway, all in all, it was mixed results for several of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders after the NextEra Energy Resources 250.
After rain washed out qualifying, Ben Kennedy started from the pole and led a race-high 52 laps early in the race. Kennedy, the great grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., made his first start at the high-banked track. Kennedy dodged a 16-truck accident on Lap 75 and rebounded to score a respectable 15th-place finish.
Tyler Reddick also made his first start, driving a Brad Keselowski Racing Ford. His debut was a memorable one, as he rebounded from some pit road issues to win rookie of the race honors with his 12th-place showing.
Mason Mingus was the third rookie contender, finishing 28th after he was caught up in the Lap 75 accident which sent his truck into the Turn 2 wall – ending his night early.
Last but not least Tyler Young finished the race 34th at Daytona; after being caught in the multi-truck accident on Lap 73.
K&N West and Mexico Toyota Series Get Underway
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series West will kick off its 2014 campaign with the Talking Stick Resort 75 with a 7 p.m. MT start on Thursday, Feb. 27 at Phoenix International Raceway. It’s the fourth consecutive season for the Arizona track to host the opener and 11th overall. Greg Pursley, the 2011 series champion, won this event from the pole last season. In last year’s season finale at Phoenix, Gray Gaulding used a final-lap nudge to get around Cole Custer and become the youngest winner in series history. All three drivers are entered in the season opener.
For the second consecutive year, the NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series will open its championship season under the lights in the Arizona desert. The Toyota 120 will get underway at 9 p.m. ET on Friday, Feb. 28 with live Spanish-language television coverage from mun2 and FOX Sports Latin America. Last season’s Phoenix race winner Abraham Calderón and series champion Rodrigo Peralta will be on hand to defend their respective titles.
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season got started last week with a pair of Florida events. NASCAR Next and Drive For Diversity driver Daniel Suárez collected wins at New Smyrna Speedway on Feb. 16 and Daytona on Feb. 18 in the UNOH Battle At The Beach. Past NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion Doug Coby capitalized on the misfortune of Ryan Preece to win the non-points Whelen Modified Tour-Whelen Southern Modified Tour race at the Battle at the Beach.