What a wild week. After the first rain-delayed Daytona 500 in NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) history, fans and those expecting to see “House” on Monday night got a rare treat of “Monday Night NASCAR.” Even some were joking about FOX getting Hank Williams Jr to do the opening theme (considering his new-found availability after last year’s firing from ESPN’s Monday Night Football). But after the delay, we got one of the most spectacular shows NASCAR has seen, with the third wreckfest of the weekend, Juan Pablo Montoya running into a Jet Dryer and its subsequent fireball, and finally Matt Kenseth outlasting Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr’s last lap challenge to be the first across the START/FINISH line to win his second Daytona 500.
The changes that NASCAR officials made to the cars and handling packages effectively found a medium between the “Two Car Tandem” and The Pack racing we’ve seen in past years, and I think they’ve about got it right (but we’ll see how it goes at the July Daytona and both Talladega races this year).
The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season rolls on this weekend at the Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) with the Subway Fresh Fit 500. Drivers and crews alike are recovering from their abbreviated week and frenzy to get their equipment back to their shops in North Carolina, Colorado, and Ohio, and race to the west coast to prepare for this weekend’s racing of 500km (312 laps) on the one-mile oval.
Coverage for this week’s NSC race begins Sunday with NASCAR Raceday on @SPEED at 12:30pm EST. Fox NASCAR SUNDAY is at 2:30pm EST, with the race itself at 3pm EST. The Green Flag will wave at approximately 3:14pm following the National Anthem performed by Brian McKnight and a pre-race flyover expected by four F-16s from the 56th Fighter Wing of Luke AFB, AZ.
Sunday’s Tweetup with SBNation.com’s @jeff_gluck will feature Daytona 500-winning NASCAR Spotter @MikeCalinoff at 9am local time around turn two #LookBehindTheFence. The hashtag for race updates from @PhoenixRaceway is #SubwayFF500. And perhaps the best news…NO CHANCE OF RAIN this weekend, so don’t expect to see Mother Nature at the track.
Best Bets: A couple of expected drivers in this week’s selections.
Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s/Cobalt Tools Chevrolet)- Despite all the controversy about crew chief Chad Knaus’ troubles, “Five Time” has four wins, eleven top-fives, and fourteen top-tens in Phoenix. He’s also been second in the last two spring races at this track, and no worse than fourteenth in the last four overall races. Although placing forty-second due to a Lap 2 wreck in the Daytona 500, expect Johnson to be very competitive this week. He’ll be starting fourth, and was seventh-fastest in final practice.
Ryan Newman (#39 Wix Filters Chevrolet)- The Rocketman is another one to watch out for this week, as he rolls off sixth and was ninth-fastest in final practice. He’s got one win, seven top-fives, and seven top-tens here, and was no worse that fifth in the last four PIR outings (including that one win). Way back in twentieth for the Daytona 500 also due to a wreck, don’t expect him to end up in the back of the pack.
Probables: I’ve got three probables this week…non-standard, but their performance doesn’t quite rate “Best Bet” status..
Carl Edwards (#99 Subway Ford)– Carl only managed to score an eighth-place finish in last week’s Daytona 500, but considering the melee’ it’s not unexpected. It was also better than 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart, so if only a few positions, he’s off to a good start this year. Carl’s got seventeen wins on intermediate tracks, with one win, six top-fives, and ten top-tens at PIR. He’s starting just behind mid-field in the pack today in twenty-fourth and was a disappointing twenty-eighth fastest in final practice, so Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne will have their work cut out for them today.
Tony Stewart (#14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy)- Smoke fizzled out in the Daytona 500 with a sixteenth-place finish. And despite still not having been victorious in the Great American race, he’s finished no worse than third in the last three flat track races (Phoenix/Martinsville/Loudon) last season, two of those wins. He’s got a win, eight top-fives and eleven top-tens at Phoenix, and is out to gain back his standing at the top of the scoring tower. Starting on the outside of the front row today, Stewart will have a good chance to get a greatly-coveted bonus point if he can lead a lap early. But with his twenty-third place run during final practice, Smoke will have some work to do with his crew chief Steve Addington (former Kurt Busch CC) to dial his car in and keep it up front.
Dark Horses– This week’s DH picks may not be drivers you’ve seen up front recently, but they’ve got history.
Jeff Burton (#31 Wheaties Chevrolet)- Burton has been hot and cold over the past few seasons, but at times, can get strings of good runs together. Despite the wreckfest during the Daytona 500, he managed to finish fifth. He’s finished no worse than sixteenth the last four flat tracks, and finished fourth last fall here at PIR. With two wins, seven top-fives, and thirteen top-tens here, he’s definitely got game. He rolls off eleventh, and was nineteenth-fastest in final practice.
Mark Martin (#55 Aarons Dream Machine Toyota)- Mark’s made a big move this week by winning the Coors Light Pole Award in his new, albeit part-time, Michael Waltrip Racing ride. Finishing tenth in the Daytona 500, Mark’s finished no worse than thirteenth in three of the last four races at PIR. He’s also fifth in points earned over the last four races. He was only fifteenth-fastest in final practice, but considering the practice speeds of some of my other picks, he should be able to stay up front.
Others who could make a showing are Juan Pablo Montoya (#42 Target Chevrolet), Dale Earnhardt Jr (#88 National Guard/Diet Mt Dew Chevrolet), and Kasey Kahne (#5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet) – There’s no chance of rain, so Montoya won’t need to be looking out for the jet dryers (unless it’s during another caution flag); Dale Jr has seven of his eighteen NSC wins on intermediate tracks and will want a good follow-up to his runner-up finish from the Daytona 500 despite starting in 29th; Kasey won last fall’s Phoenix race, starts tenth, and was fourteenth-fastest in practice.
Rumor Mill: If the racing wasn’t enough, there’s this…
Penske out of Dodge– Roger Penske announced this week his Penske racing team will change from Dodge to Ford machines in 2013. Penske: “We thought it was time for us to evaluate other options.” (NASCAR.com)
Great Balls of FIRE! In a bizarre twist of events, Juan Pablo Montoya loses control of his car under a caution flag and runs into a Jet Dryer used to clean the track, causing a two-hour Red Flag condition and subsequent delay in finishing the race. Although this year’s Daytona 500 was run on a Monday, it actually finished up on Tuesday morning just after midnight. Miraculously no one was injured in the accident. Nonetheless NASCAR officials have announced that jet dryer crews will now wear fire suits and helmets.
Knaus OUT of the House: Chad Knaus, crew chief for the #48 Lowe’s Chevy, was suspended for six weeks and fined $100,000 for a pre-Daytona 500 infraction where an unauthorized “C-post” was installed in the rear of Jimmie Johnson’s car. It’s presumed that this “unapproved body modification” could have given the car a bit of an aerodynamic advantage during the Superspeedway runnings. Jimmie Johnson’s team was also docked twenty-five driver/team points; coupled with his forty-second place finish in the 500, he goes into Phoenix with negative points. He’ll have to finish better than twentieth this week just to get out of the hole. I’m thinking he can do it. Hendrick Motorsports will appeal the decision; there will be no personnel changes on the 48 team until after the appeal. (Hendrick Motorsports)
Brad KeseTWEETski– During the 2+ hour delay in Monday Night’s race, Brad Keselowski (#2 Miller Lite Dodge) began Tweeting during the Red Flag. While he now always carries a cell phone with him during races (this after a past crash in California where he couldn’t inform his family of his condition until hours after the wreck), he received a lot of attention, and a LOT of followers on Twitter. @Keselowski picked up over one hundred THOUSAND followers during this break. Some expected NASCAR officials to scold/penalize K’ski for this (presuming “unauthorized equipment” in the car); I’m glad to see they allowed it. Of course, many pundits and conspiracy theorists this week were trying to figure out ways in which smart phones could be used and exploited during a race, from adjusting the electronic fuel injection (EFI) parameters during the race, to Chad Knaus continuing to advise and direct his driver, Jimmie Johnson, during his suspension.
Tech Talk: Rubberin’s Racing–Like a number of tracks (Daytona & Michigan), Phoenix Raceway completed a repaving operation just before last fall’s race. And with that, comes a very green racing surface, akin (but not nearly to the extent) of having a good rainstorm before a race. Many different things can be done to “rubber in” a freshly-paved racing surface, and Phoenix embraced a couple of them. Tire rotators (machines that move along a surface and rotate tires against the track to use the friction to lay in rubber) and drivers running many laps work to get that rubber worked into the green tracks and provide additional grip for the race cars. This effort primarily produces an additional “upper grove” to aid in the competition. Brian Sperber, president of Phoenix Raceway, commented recently, “The goal was to present the best possible racing surface to NASCAR and the drivers for this weekend’s races. This is a very important race in the NASCAR season and we wanted to make sure that the track was ready to perform.” (PhoenixRaceway.com)
Final Thoughts: Based on everything that happened last weekend, I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the broadcast teams from FOX and MRN, specifically Darrell Waltrip, Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds, Jeff Hammond, Winston Kelley, Joe Hall, Dave Moody, Pete Pistone, Mike Bagley, and a host of other pit reporters, color commentators, and their technical crews. They endured three wreck-filled races, rain delays, and many hours of rain delays, filling in the waits with color commentary and flashbacks. They did a remarkable job. Also earning a lot of respect is Joie Chitwood and his team of the Daytona International Speedway, whose preparations and quick actions significantly mitigated the jet dryer explosion and subsequent fireball. Job WELL DONE!
Tune in to Fox, your local Motor Racing Network affiliate, or on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch 90) for all the action in the Valley of the Sun. I’ll have my normal race updates, analysis, and occasional rant on Twitter (@speedglutton).
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