Sprint Cup Series teams are at Phoenix International Raceway this weekend for The Profit on CNBC 500 presented by Small Business Fueling America taking place on Sunday, March 2nd for 312 laps of racing action. Television coverage begins at 2:30 pm ET on FOX with the green flag waving around 3 pm ET. Race coverage is also available on MRN and SiriusXM channel 90.
After winning an epic Daytona 500 last weekend, the big question on everyone’s mind is will NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr make it two in a row at Phoenix this weekend? There’s plenty of historical data indicating a second-straight victory is possible and somewhat probable given the inevitable momentum of winning NASCAR’s biggest event.
While Earnhardt’s success at the one-mile oval is somewhat spotty, it’s also been memorable. He had back-to-back wins in 2003 and ’04 when there was one Sprint Cup race per season at Phoenix. Then there’s last year when Earnhardt finished fifth and fourth during a solid 2013 season.
Junior Nation started talk immediately after Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 win about his potential to win the Sprint Cup Series championship for the first time – could ‘this’ be the year? 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).
Somewhat overlooked, is that Earnhardt was a title contender before the first lap of the season. That optimism comes from his strong 2013 season; a season featuring a career-high 22 top-tens, starting with a runner-up finish at the Daytona 500 and ending with a fifth-place finish in the year-end series points. Earnhardt’s best season since 2006 – and his best result since 2008 when he joined Hendrick Motorsports. That followed several years of puzzling results, particularly 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 noteworthy point of consideration is since the Daytona 500 became the Sprint Cup Series season opening race in 1982 – a piece of trivia in and of itself – only two drivers have followed their Daytona 500 victory with a win in the very next race: Matt Kenseth at Phoenix in 2009 and Jeff Gordon at Rockingham in 1997, with Gordon going on to win the series championship that same year.
Brad Keselowski becomes the first series pole-sitter qualifying under NASCAR’s new group format at Phoenix’s one-mile track. In two qualifying rounds, Keselowski won the last ten-minute round with the top-12 drivers from the first 30-minute round. At tracks measuring 1.25 miles or longer, there are three rounds of qualifying, with round one at 25 minutes, the field decreases to 24 cars in the second ten minute round and 12 cars in the last five-minute round. The three-round qualifying format will début at Las Vegas next week.
For several drivers, the Daytona 500 started their season with some anxiety, after considering themselves favorites to make the Chase and contend for the championship. Especially with the new emphasis on winning races, a mis-step in the beginning can turn their momentum in the wrong direction and those drivers will work hard to turn that around this weekend.
That means, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, and Clint Bowyer are especially looking for strong Phoenix runs. Kahne is now 29th in series points; Stewart is 35th; Bowyer is 39th. Kahne had the best starting position of the three at fifth.
Kahne was in two incidents causing the third and fourth cautions of the Daytona 500; Stewart was side-tracked by a faulty fuel cell, replaced 130-laps into the 200-lap race; and Bowyer had engine problems, completing only 127 laps of the race.
A total of 16 drivers will qualify for the Chase, with race winners in the season’s first 26 races getting top seeding – provided they are in the top-30 in series points after 26 events. Since there are two times (1961 and 2003) with more than 15 different winners in the first 26 races, the points will likely coming into play before the Chase begins at Chicagoland.
2014 marks the largest class of Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year contenders since, 1994, and that’s why their talent was a hot topic throughout Speedweeks. Rookies were hoping to get their campaigns off to strong start in the Daytona 500, but by the end of the race, five of seven had suffered to accidents, ending their night early.
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.
A trio of rookies are looking to bounce back this weekend at Phoenix. Ryan Truex failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 and has only three series starts at the one-mile facility. Justin Allgaier started last seasons’ race and finished 31st, while Cole Whitt ran the fall races in 2011 and 2013, finishing 25th and 40th respectively.
Phoenix is the next step on the Rookie’s journey toward earning the ROTY title and it may mean more challenges for the young rookie contenders or perhaps it will mean a chance to bounce back.
Among the Phoenix discussions is Danica Patrick as she returns to her adopted hometown. Patrick is originally from Roscoe, IL and has three Sprint Cup starts at Phoenix with a best finish of 17th in November 2012.
Patrick left Daytona disappointed, after a 40th-place finish that ended a semi-strong run. A hard crash into the wall entering the tri-oval closed-out her day. She’ll start the race at Phoenix in 33rd place.
Other drivers with a connection to Phoenix include, Denny Hamlin, fresh off his runner-up Daytona 500 finish, lived in the area – renting a house in Scottsdale in the offseason between 2011-12 season. He won at Phoenix in March 2012 and his first series pole was in November 2005. Hamlin’s listed hometown is Chesterfield, VA and he starts the race in 12th-place this weekend.
Michael McDowell, driving the No. 95 Leavine Family car is from nearby Glendale. McDowell failed to qualify for the 500 and is starting 26th on Sunday.
Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Alex Bowman is from Tuscon, AZ and is making his series début at Phoenix. He’ll start his first race there in 35th-place.
And the new Sprint Cup Series Managing Director, Richard Buck is a Phoenix native. Buck took his new role as series directory in January of this season after overseeing the merger of Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series. Before his role at IMSA, Buck served as director of NASCAR’s touring series from 2006-12.
Other noteworthy points going into the race this weekend include Dale Earnhardt Jr is the 11th driver to win multiple Daytona 500s. Updating that stat is becoming a habit over the last three years, with Matt Kenseth (2012) and Jimmie Johnson (2013) also capturing their second win the The Great American Race.
The next milestones to watch begin with Kenseth’s next top-ten finish, when he earns it, he becomes the 22nd driver in Sprint Cup history to reach 250 career top-tens. Kyle Busch needs 192 laps led to become the 15th driver in series history to reach 10,000 career laps led – Sunday’s race is 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 included 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). This year the spring Phoenix winner will earn a berth in the 16 member Chase for the Sprint Cup and the fall winner becomes a championship eligible driver, earning their seat in an élite four-member group in the Chase championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.