Phoenix offers Johnson Opportunity, Challenges
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
Michael McDowell and J.J. Yeley have a few things in common.
They’re both from the Phoenix area. Yeley’s hometown is Phoenix; McDowell hails from Glendale.
They’re both driving for smaller teams with two or fewer cars. Yeley drives for Tommy Baldwin Racing, McDowell for Phil Parsons Racing. And they both scored top-10 finishes in the Daytona 500, and ride into Phoenix on a wave of momentum.
McDowell finished a career-best ninth in The Great American Race. His previous best finish was 20th at Richmond International Raceway in 2008. Yeley’s top-10 Daytona 500 finish was the eighth of his career, and first since June of 2008. He finished 10th on Sunday.
And, of course, you have 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.
Newcomers Prove They Have What It Takes At Daytona
On Saturday during the DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway, the gauntlet was thrown down. Many drivers new to the NASCAR Nationwide Series or with limited experience wanted to prove they could hang with the big boys. And hang they did.
Action sports star Travis Pastrana gave his multitude of fans a little preview of what they could expect throughout the season with a career-best 10th-place finish in only his second start in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford. In 10 career starts in the series, his previous best was 17th (three times in 2012). He’s never competed in a NASCAR national series race at Phoenix, the site of this weekend’s NNS Dollar General 200.
In his first eight races, Pastrana piloted the No. 99 RAB Racing Toyota, which is now driven by 19-year-old Alex Bowman. In only his fifth start, Bowman turned in a solid, third-place performance at Daytona after running near the front for most of the race. His previous career high was in last year’s fall Phoenix race where he finished a respectable 15th. This weekend, Bowman looks to build upon his Daytona success and improve upon his past Phoenix performance.
Although Parker Kligerman has performed well in the NNS before, he enters 2013 with his first full-time ride, driving the No. 77 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota. He started the season on a high note leading 10 laps at Daytona before finishing fifth. In 19 starts, Kligerman has six top 10s and a pole.
This weekend’s race in Phoenix will be his first NNS appearance at the one-mile oval. However, in two NCWTS starts at the track, Kligerman finished 32nd and 27th.
Nelson Piquet Jr., who moved up to a full-time NNS ride this season, continues to prove he has the chops to compete in the series. In only five starts, Piquet has one win, two top 10s and a pole. While he didn’t finish in the top 10 at Daytona, Piquet did finish 11th. He’s visited the Phoenix track twice before, with the NCWTS, where he had 13th- and 8th-place showings.
Hornish Hoping To Duplicate Past Phoenix Success To Remain Atop Standings
For the first time in his NASCAR career, driver Sam Hornish Jr. finds himself on top of the world – more accurately, the standings.
After six years on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit and six years in the NASCAR Nationwide Series (his first full-time season in 2012), Hornish finally made his way to the top. To begin his seventh season of NNS competition, Hornish took runner-up in the season-opening Daytona race and the lead in the standings. NSCS regular Tony Stewart won the DRIVE4COPD 300 and is not eligible for championship points in the NNS.
Hornish looks to maintain his lead and extend his one-point advantage over Alex Bowman as the series heads to Phoenix, the site of Hornish’s only series win. In the fall 2011 race at Phoenix, he outpaced Brad Keselowski to win the WYPALL 200 by 0.553 seconds.
Championship Favorites Need Shot Of Good Luck
After less-than-stellar performances in the season-opening DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona, a quartet of drivers is hoping to reverse their fortunes in Saturday’s Dollar General 200.
After finishing the previous two seasons as runner-up in the standings to Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Elliott Sadler headed into 2013 as a favorite to claim the title at season’s end. A strong outing in Daytona would put him on the right path. However, after finishing 15th, he’s looking to finish better in Phoenix and work his way back into contention. In eight NNS appearances at the track, he has one win and two top 10s.
Former NASCAR Nationwide champion (2003) Brian Vickers returned to the series in 2013, his first full-time season since 2003, looking for his second championship. In order to accomplish that feat, he’ll need to finish better than 19th. Perhaps his fortunes will turn at Phoenix, a track at which he’s never won in four attempts.
Austin Dillon, who finished third in the 2012 standings, is also considered a contender for the crown. Unfortunately, his season also didn’t start as well as he had hoped. After finishing 21st, he needs a strong performance at Phoenix, where he has sixth- and fourth-place finishes in his two most recent trips.
After getting caught up in a late-race accident and finishing 26th at Daytona, Michael Annett, last year’s fifth-place finisher in the standings, needs a reversal of fortune this weekend at Phoenix, where he has never won in eight attempts.
NASCAR Nationwide Series, Etc.
Hometown favorites Michael McDowell (Glendale) and Alex Bowman (Tucson) return to Arizona, where they both hope to win the Dollar General 200 in front of family and friends. … 2013 Daytona 500 champion Jimmie Johnson suits up for the NNS race at the helm of the JR Motorsports No. 5 Great Clips Chevrolet. It’s Johnson’s first competition in the series since the 2011 Watkins Glen race, where he finished second. … NNS regular Austin Dillon will visit the Phoenix Children’s Hospital on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, to help raise awareness for pediatric trauma.
Sauter Gains Whole New Perspective With Daytona Victory
Few current competitors have greater success in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series than Johnny Sauter. The Wisconsin driver counts victories in every season as a fulltime driver, a Sunoco Rookie of the Year award and two top-three championship finishes.
Missing, however, had been a top performance at Daytona International Speedway, where accidents in three successive season openers left Sauter digging himself out of a championship hole.
Not this year.
Sauter finally won the season’s crown jewel, the Feb. 22 NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway, in a tense duel with Kyle Busch. He’ll go to the April 6 Kroger 250 at Martinsville Speedway with the wind figuratively at his back.
He won the 2011 Kroger 250 and finished fourth in the track’s fall race the same season.
“Every year we’ve been looking at being 25th to 35th in points, depending where we finished, going into the season, and we came close to winning the championship two years ago,” said Sauter, who won both series races at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012 but finished ninth in points. “So I’m digging right now where we’re sitting, that’s for sure.”
Sauter’s Daytona victory established a pair of milestones – one for his manufacturer, the other personal. The ThorSport Racing team recorded Toyota’s 100th victory since the truck maker entered the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2004. Toyota now has won seven straight Daytona truck races.
For Sauter, winning at Daytona continued a family racing tradition. His father, Jim, won the track’s ARCA 200 in 1978 – the same year Sauter was born. The family’s patriarch and siblings Jay and Tim also have competed in the series.
“This is cool for me personally,” Johnny Sauter said.
Season Opener Suggests Banner Year For NCWTS Newcomers
It never hurts to hit the ground running, especially if you’re new to NASCAR. Several NASCAR Camping World Truck newcomers did exactly that in Daytona, although with mixed results.
Darrell Wallace Jr. experienced the highs and lows of a series and Sunoco Rookie of the Year debut. Wallace overcame an early pit road miscue to bring his No. 54 KBM Toyota home 12th – two positions higher than he qualified.
“There were times when it was nerve wracking, but we made it through with very few scratches,” said the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East graduate.
Rookie contenders Jeb Burton, 20, and Ryan Blaney, 19, did even better. Burton, driver of the No. 4 Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet, finished fifth. Blaney’s No. 29 Brad Keselowski Racing Ford was eighth.
The week’s most spectacular performance wound up being its own reward. Brennan Newberry became just the second official rookie contender to win a NCWTS pole at Daytona. The 23-year-old Californian’s No. 14 NTS Motorsports Chevrolet was swept up in a multi-truck accident and finished 33rd.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc.
There’s no slowing down for four-time NCWTS champion Ron Hornaday Jr., who’ll celebrate his 55th birthday later this year. Hornaday drove his No. 9 NTS Motorsports Chevrolet to a Daytona-best third-place finish – Hornaday’s high since last July’s runner-up performance at Iowa Speedway. … James Buescher opened defense of his championship with a 13th-place finish. Ty Dillon was the only member of last year’s top five to record a top-10 Daytona finish (sixth).
NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, Mexico Toyota Series Kick Off
Two of NASCAR’s touring series – NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series and NASCAR K&N Pro Series West – kick off their championship seasons at Phoenix International Raceway this weekend.
The Mexico-based Toyota Series is first up on Friday, March 1, at 7 p.m. local time with an historic ‘first’ for NASCAR. It’s the first time the Mexico-based series, which began operation in 2004 before coming under the NASCAR banner for the 2007 season, will race in the United States. Like the other touring series, the Toyota Series is becoming a launching point for young drivers.
Daniel Suárez, a 20-year-old out of Monterrey, Mexico, and part of NASCAR’s Next9 initiative, comes into the season as a favorite after finishing third in the point standings a season ago. Rubén García Jr., the 2012 series rookie of the year at 16 years of age, looks to make a huge stride this season after he joined the powerful Canel’s race team in the offseason.
The K&N Pro Series West takes the stage on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. Another 16-year-old, Cameron Hayley, is also a member of the Next9 program and is coming off a watershed victory in the K&N Pro Series race at the UNOH Battle At The Beach, a non-points event on Feb. 19 at Daytona International Speedway. This season Hayley is teamed with 2011 series champion and two-time Phoenix winner Greg Pursley at Gene Price Motorsports.
Michael Self, the PIR winner from last November, also showed well in Daytona and looks to continue his development in this 60th season of competition for the K&N Pro Series West.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
- The Race: Subway Fresh Fit 500
- The Place: Phoenix International Raceway
- The Date: Sunday, March 3
- The Time: 3 p.m. (ET)
- TV: FOX, 2:30 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 312 miles (312 laps)
NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES
- The Race: Dollar General 200 Fueled By AmeriGas
- The Place: Phoenix International Raceway
- The Date: Saturday, March 2
- The Time: 4:30 p.m. (ET)
- TV: ESPN2, 4 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 200 miles (200 laps)
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES
- The Race: Kroger 250
- The Place: Martinsville Speedway
- The Date: Saturday, April 6
- The Time: 1:30 p.m. (ET)
- TV: SPEED, 1 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90